Pets get periodontal disease in the same way that people do. You eat, bacterial plaque starts to form on the teeth within 30 minutes, then 72 hours later, the plaque combines with calcium and other minerals in the saliva and forms tartar (calculus) – it’s basically bacterial cement on the teeth. As the tartar sits on, and especially underneath, the gum line, it produces byproducts that cause inflammation – this is what gingivitis is. Gingivitis is stage 1 periodontal disease, and will be seen as a red/purple discoloration at the gum line. Gingivitis is an infection that will start to eat away at the ligament that holds the tooth in, then start to cause loss of the bone surrounding the tooth, creating deep pockets, then gum recession, leading to the loss of the tooth.
Periodontal disease is an issue for multiple reasons. The obvious one is tooth loss, but long before that, your pet is suffering. Pain starts at the point of gingivitis, and gets more severe as disease progresses. Our pets are generally very stoic, and will usually have been suffering for months to years before making it obvious that they are painful. Halitosis is a sign of periodontal disease – “dog breath” is a sign that your pet has periodontal disease, it is NOT a normal thing in an older dog.
Pets may become quieter/less active, eat more slowly, wince and/or drop food when eating, or become more finicky as things progress – these are usually slow changes over time, so we assume they “are just getting older”. Periodontal disease has also been correlated very highly with mitral and tricuspid valve cardiac disease in later life in small dogs.
Prevention is key – home care will help reduce the need for professional cleanings and evaluations, as well as preventing issues from coming back as quickly after a cleaning has been performed. Water additives, such as Vetradent, help to kill the plaque as your pet drinks every day. Flat rawhide or veggie chews (with or without chlorhexidine) help to provide both a scraping of the teeth and a bit of flossing as the softer chewed end of the rawhide rubs along and under the gum line. Oral chlorhexidine rinses provide an antiseptic effect to kill plaque.
Oral wipes, such as DentAcetic or MaxiGuard, are generally easy to use and provide both chemical and physical removal of plaque. OraVet chews both scrap plaque off of the teeth and apply a barrier that prevents plaque from sticking to the tooth (these work best when started when the teeth are clean). Brushing your pets’ teeth is something that can be done with most pets, but it needs to be a step wise approach – don’t just grab them and go to town, it won’t work any better than it would with a young child.
Find a pet toothpaste flavor that your pet likes (there are beef, poultry, malt, and several other flavors available) and use it as a treat for a period of time. Get them used to the toothpaste as a positive thing, then start rubbing a finger along the outside of the teeth. Start with just a few teeth, then gradually do more and more of the mouth. Once your pet is used to this, you can graduate to using either a finger brush or a toothbrush (pet products only so the bristles are soft enough), but scale back to only a few teeth again – it will be a more intense sensation, and you don’t want to make it unpleasant!
Gradually work up to where you can do the entire mouth – this whole process can take weeks to months based on how frequently you are doing it, and your particular pet. Generally, just concentrate on the outside surfaces of the teeth, it will do a good job without unduly stressing your pet. Toothbrushing is the best thing to do if you are only going to do one thing, but much like we can use Plax, and a toothbrush, and Floss, and Listerine, a combined approach can be most helpful. ONLY USE ANIMAL SPECIFIC PRODUCTS! Human products contain substances that can be toxic if swallowed, and your pets will swallow at least some of what goes into their mouths.
Home dental care needs to be done at least daily for best effect – keep in mind that 72 hours after a meal tartar will form, and tartar does not brush off. Try to make the experience fun for your pet – give a dental treat/chew after each toothbrushing or dental wipe. It’s ok to give a meal or treat after dental care, because if you’re doing it once daily, you’re removing 24 hours of plaque – it doesn’t matter if more plaque is put on in 10 minutes or 10 hours, you’ll get it tomorrow!
A note on dental chews – very hard objects such as bones, antlers, cow hooves, hard Nylabones, etc are not recommended. A dog’s tooth is the same as a human tooth anatomically, they just put far more pounds per square inch of pressure across them. If you know anyone who has bitten into a rib or steak bone and sheared off half a tooth…that’s what will eventually happen to your dog (this is what happens to carnivores in the wild as well). A good rule of thumb is to take a chew you’d be giving to your pet, then bounce it hard off of your knee. If you wouldn’t do it a second time because it hurt…don’t let your dog chew on it.
Non-anesthetic or “gentle” dentals are never recommended. It is impossible to properly probe pockets for periodontal disease, it is impossible to do dental x-rays to find broken teeth and tooth root abscesses which are a source of pain and infection, and it is impossible to properly polish the teeth afterwards. Scraping the tooth surfaces with metal scalers puts scratches into the enamel – if they aren’t polished afterwards, it makes it easier for the plaque to stick to the tooth, just like sanding a door makes it easier for paint to stick – “gentle” dentals actually make tartar come back faster.
Dental instruments are also very sharp, and there is a substantial risk of damage to the tongue, gums, and cheeks of a pet who is not sedated if they flail while the instrument is in their mouth. They are also illegal in the state of California if not done by a licensed veterinary professional.
Home dental care is one of the best ways to keep your furry friends healthy and happy later in life. It allows you to minimize anesthetic procedures, helps you catch oral issues before they turn into problems, and helps you catch painful problems your pet is hiding from you. Please contact us to discuss proper product usage and techniques!