Here’s the ‘tooth’ about good pet oral hygiene



“Eighty-five percent of pets have periodontal disease by the age of 3.”

That is a staggering statistic, and yet, dental disease is often the most overlooked and ignored aspect of our pets’ health. And for obvious reasons, pets can’t brush their own teeth and few of us as owners are committed enough to brush their teeth for them.

It is important, however, to understand the health consequences of poor dental hygiene, and why preventive dental care is recommended so strongly by your veterinarian.

Periodontal health refers to the health of the tissues around (perio) the tooth (dontal).

The tooth is made up of the crown, which is the portion we can see above the gumline, and the root, which is below the gumline. The root is held in place in the socket by a periodontal ligament. Plaque develops when bacteria and saliva cover the teeth. This is the stage most of us brush away daily to prevent further damage.

When plaque is not cleared from the surface of the tooth, it will harden into tartar. That’s the stuff the hygienist scrapes away during your visit to the dentist.

We all know that this can be uncomfortable. Now imagine asking a dog or cat to sit still, open its mouth, and let a veterinarian scrape literally years of tartar from between the teeth and under the gumline. Not likely, right? That’s why dental cleanings on animals are so involved.

General anesthesia is required to safely keep the patient quiet and still, while protecting the airway and being able to fully assess the condition of all of the teeth. Dogs have 42 teeth, and cats have 30.

Once that cement-like tartar develops, an anaerobic bacterium called Porphyromonas grows. These bacteria are nasty critters and much more harmful to the bone, tooth structures and ligaments around the teeth than the tartar.

If the periodontal ligament breaks down, and the bone around the tooth is eaten away. The tooth can become loose and, if the case is severe enough, the jaw can break. And then the bacteria can seed the rest of the body, leading to infections on the valves and lining of the heart, the liver and the kidneys or anywhere else the blood may carry it.

Periodic professional cleanings have six basic steps: 

1. Visible tartar is chipped away using special instruments.

2. Scaling of finer tartar deposits is done using an ultrasonic (high frequency) scaler.

3. Periodontal pockets are probed and recorded in the dental chart.

4. Special tools are used to plane the roots below the gumline to achieve a smooth root.

5. The enamel is polished.

6. The mouth is treated with an antibiotic disinfectant, and a fluoride treatment is applied. 

Once deep periodontal pockets develop, an x-ray is required to assess if the periodontal ligament is damaged, if there has been bone loss and if there is a bacterial abscess in the root of the tooth.

Bone loss is irreversible. If a tooth is abscessed, it must be removed. This often requires a surgical flap in the gingival tissue and removal of enough bone to access the root.

Following extraction, the bone is smoothed and the gingiva is sutured closed over the socket. This becomes more of an oral surgical procedure than a dental cleaning and is where the cost of dental work starts to rise. Deep gingival pockets with no abscess can be filled with a special antibiotic gel to prevent further damage.

Obviously, the goal is preventive dental care for your pet. This includes regular dental exams (many veterinarians offer this as a free service), periodic cleanings and a maintenance program at home.

Routine periodic cleanings, while not inexpensive, far outweigh the seriousness of a more extensive procedure.

In our next column, we will discuss the most effective home care you can implement once the teeth are cleaned of heavy tartar.

Drs. Tom and Tara Suplizio own Animal Medical Clinic in Grand Junction. The Suplizios are graduates of the Colorado State University Veterinary School. Email them at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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