Why teeth matter more than you might think

Why do we vets bang on and on and on about dental disease in dogs and cats? Every time you bring them in it seems we’re obsessed with messing around in your pet’s mouth, warbling on about calculus, plaque, gingivitis and other stuff which eventually boils down to the vet saying “Fluffy needs a dental, that’s why her breath stinks!”

What are we doing? What does it all mean? If you’ve ever left a sink full of dirty dishes overnight, then you know the slimy greasy film that develops on the crockery. This is technically called a “biofilm”- it’s a population of bacteria that has grown at a fantastic rate overnight into a bacterial city. The same thing happens with teeth. If we don’t remove food and other matter that bacteria can feed and breed on, then teeth and gums will develop this same biofilm. We call this film “plaque”.

Over time, if plaque isn’t removed then it hardens into the yellow/ brown hard substance that many a keen vet has chipped off with a fingernail- this is calculus.


The dreaded calculus. Brown and tough to shift

The good news is that plaque is relatively easily removed. Just like the film on your dishes, something abrasive that scrapes the teeth will remove it. In fact, total removal isn’t necessary- it’s usually enough just to disturb the colonies of bacteria that are developing. The bad news is that calculus is much harder to remove. More on that later.
If we don’t remove this bacterial film, then the bacteria will make themselves at home in the gap between the tooth and the gum. The membrane on the gum is called the gingiva, and this gap is called the gingival pocket. The bacteria will cause inflammation of the gum and produce nasty smells- gingivitis (anything with -itis on the end means inflammation), and the dreaded halitosis. Over time the bacterial inflammation  will cause the pocket to deepen, causing gum recession and eventually exposure of the root and loosening of the tooth.

More immediately serious is that this inflammation can cause pain and infection. Not just tooth abscesses though; every time your pet chews on a piece of food, some of the bacteria will escape into the bloodstream through micro abrasions in the gum. This bacteria can seed around the blood stream and lodge in heart valves and the kidneys, causing damage such as valvular endocarditis (-itis again: inflammation of the heart valve leading to leakage and heart failure), and kidney disease.

So dental problems are a BIG PROBLEM. Really big. In fact, massive. That’s why we vets are obsessed. I’d go as far to say it’s the single most preventable problem pets face, and the single biggest cause of pain and distress in older animals. Imagine a life with chronic toothache, or tooth root abscess. Now multiple that by 3 or 4 teeth, or even every tooth! That pain is the reality for many older pets we see every day.

What can you and we do?

STOP THE PLAQUE FROM BUILDING UP!!! In order of priority from highest to lowest, this is what we can do:

  1. Feed a decent diet. Crap diets contain lots of sugar which bacteria love. The jury’s out, but raw food seems to help and bones are great teeth cleaners (if you can stand the smell and protective behaviour). Anything your pet can really get their teeth into and chew will scrape the teeth clean and stimulate saliva production which is anti-bacterial
  2. Tooth brushing. Very effective if done properly, but seriously, who’s got the time to wrestle with a resistant dog or cat once or twice a day? If you’re lucky enough to have a compliant animal then make sure you get right back to the molars inside and out.
  3. Don’t get a Yorkshire terrier or Greyhound/ Lurcher 🙂 Some breeds definitely suffer more with dental issues; it must be something to do with how bacteria stick to the enamel on their teeth. But do get these dogs- they’re great 😉 Also dogs with short mouths end up with teeth piling up on each other providing lots of lovely crevices for particles of food to hide for bacteria. Mmm lovely.
  4. Mouthwashes. Adding an antibacterial to drinking water can help retard bacterial growth. Chlorhexidine is pretty effective.
  5. Dental sticks. Not sure about these- I’m still to be convinced of their effectiveness, and the list of ingredients is pretty frightening. Same goes for rawhide chews

Check your pet’s teeth regularly. Once or twice a week is sufficient. Just lift the lip and look at the big teeth at the front and back. If this is “gross” because it “stinks”, then don’t bother looking- they’ve got a problem already which needs professional help.

Look right back at molars too!

Get teeth cleaned if you see calculus. Properly. Calculus is almost impossible to remove properly at home- this is where your pet needs a professional scale and polish. This involves a skilled vet or vet nurse using an ultrasonic probe to physically remove the calculus (scaling) and then polish the tooth smooth to prevent bacteria readhering. It requires a general anaesthetic as no pet will tolerate this if done properly- those gingival pockets need cleaning too, and that’s uncomfortable.
Don’t ignore problems. It’s easier and safer to clean the mildly affected teeth of a 9 or 10 year old then anaesthetising a 13 year old with serious oral infection.In these older more seriously affected animals the teeth are already ruined, the animal has had years of pain it didn’t need, the anaesthetic is more tricky and the infection may already have caused irreparable problems to vital organs.

So here are my take home points- make dental care a priority. Feed a good diet and make sure you check the teeth regularly and get problems fixed early. In fact do all the things you made the kids promise to do when you got that little puppy or kitten 🙂 Have fun, and remember you can always give us a call or send us a gory photo if you need some advice.