Pet owners living in the city of Chicago put a lot of time and effort into giving their pets great lives. I’m amazed and encouraged by the level of care I see given to pets in our neighborhood—from regular walks, daycare and grooming to “meet-ups”, pet friendly restaurant patios and of course, no shortage of social media attention.
So what, in my experience as a vet, is the number one part of pet care that routinely gets overlooked? It’s the part that’s hard to see—the inside of your pet’s mouth. Gum disease is the most common clinical condition affecting adult dogs according to the American Veterinary Dental College. And yet despite how common the problem, only a small percentage of pets get routine dental care.
What causes gum disease? Gum disease in pets is caused by bacteria in an animal’s mouth forming a soft plaque coating on the surface of the teeth. Calcium salts from a cat or dog’s saliva then forms a hard crust on the plaque known as tartar. This cycle continues until your pet has a brownish crusty layer on the sides of the teeth, usually worse on the molars in the back of the mouth and close to the gumline. The crust holds more bacteria that then cause infection of the gums and surrounding bone. Once infection takes hold in the gums and bone, this can cause significant oral pain, which is often hard to recognize in pets. In severe cases, bacteria from around the gums can get into the bloodstream, causing serious heart problems.
The classic appearance of gum disease (also known as gingivitis) is a thin band of red, inflamed gum tissue that touches against the tartar. Not sure if your pet has plaque or tartar? Try the sniff test. A dog or cat’s breath isn’t supposed to smell like Colgate, but it shouldn’t be rank either. Next, just look! Gently pull back your pet’s cheeks and look at the sides of those molars way in the back. What do you see? If the sides of the teeth look brown and discolored that’s a sure sign that your pet has a lot of tartar.
So what can we do at home to prevent gum disease? With dogs, brushing their teeth with a veterinarian-approved pet toothpaste 2-3 times per week using a soft-bristled toothbrush is the gold standard for preventing tartar build-up. It’s best to start this when the dog is a puppy, to get them acclimated to the sensation. Many adult dogs will not accept teeth brushing and few cats will subject themselves to such indignity.
Chewing on appropriate dental chews can also help prevent tartar build-up, although I have a few rules about dental health chews.
1. Make sure the chews are the appropriate size for your pet. If the treat is too small, it can be swallowed too quickly and cause an intestinal blockage. Legitimate dental treats will have weight guides on their packaging that should be followed.
2. Always look for the seal of approval from the Veterinary Oral Health Council, or VOHC. www.vohc.org/accepted_products.htm.
This ensures you are not buying any potentially harmful or untested products.
3. Give only one per day to prevent weight gain.
4. Your pet should be spending at least 2-3 minutes chewing on it before it disappears. If they are swallowing it in seconds, consider a different type of chew.
Make sure your dog has plenty of non-edible regular chew toys available as well. Any chewing helps remove tartar.
Even with the best prevention plan, eventually your pet may need a professional dental cleaning. How will you know? Make sure your veterinarian examines your pet’s teeth at least once per year. According the American Veterinary Dental College, any pet that has gingivitis (that band of red, inflamed gum tissue) is in need of a professional dental cleaning. Remember that even with daily brushing and flossing, humans are advised to get professional cleaning 2 times per year by their dentists. How much more so our pets whom we rarely brush, never floss, and who age much faster than humans.
The most common objection I encounter to professional cleaning is cost.
Any way you look at it, it is not going to be cheap to get a high quality professional dental cleaning. Any facility that tells you that they can do a quality dental cleaning without bloodwork, IV fluids or anesthesia is cutting so many corners such as proper pain control and patient monitoring that you would be safer to not have the procedure done at all. Fortunately the majority of veterinary facilities practice very high standards of care for their patients. That quality of care is what you are paying for.
The second most common concern I hear is toward anesthesia, or “putting them under”. There is no way to get a good evaluation and cleaning of a pet’s mouth without having them sleep through it. General anesthesia ensures that a pet can safely sleep and breathe properly throughout the procedure. Proper monitoring is essential. Ask your vet what monitoring tools they use and whether or not IV fluids will be administered during the procedure. Pre-anesthetic blood work is also essential to make sure your pet is safe for anesthesia.
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who were initially skeptical about the need for a dental cleaning for their pet, who became strong proponents for it after the procedure once they saw the change that it brought about in their pet’s behavior and attitude. Diseased teeth and gums hurt.
Talk to your vet about your pet’s oral and dental health this month. Make sure you have all the tools for a good preventative oral health. If a dental procedure is advised, ask for a complete and detailed estimate for it. Ask to tour their facility and see where the procedure will be performed. This will help you make an informed and confident decision for your pet and ultimately help ensure their gums and teeth are healthy and pain-free for a lifetime.