The vast majority of dogs and cats in the UK will, at some point in their lives, suffer from dental disease. This is a major source of pain and distress, and is also a major cause of other even more serious health issues. The tragedy of it is that, in most cases, it is easily preventable - so in this blog we’re going to look at what the problems are, and then show you how you can prevent them from developing!
What is dental disease? In most cases, we’re talking about gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) and periodontal disease (damage to the ligaments that hold the teeth in their sockets). This is primarily caused by plaque - a clear or white film that covers the teeth, and is composed of dead gum cells, food, and bacteria.
This biofilm grows rapidly, and then starts to solidify as minerals from the food and the saliva are incorporated. We call this hardened plaque “tartar”. The bacteria and discolouration on the teeth look bad, but they aren’t the real problem - this is happening when this biofilm comes into contact with the gumline. Here it triggers a strong inflammatory response (gingivitis). This can result in swelling or even overgrowth of the gums, and mild discomfort or pain. Unfortunately, the bacteria often don’t stop there - they then invade the tooth socket (the “alveolus”), and start breaking down the periodontal ligaments. This results in the tooth becoming unstable, moderate to severe pain, and sometimes abscesses within the jaws.
What are the symptoms? In most cases, the symptoms are remarkably subtle until the damage is extreme. Discolouration of the teeth and swelling of the gums, as well as halitosis - bad breath - are usually obvious. As the disease becomes more severe, they may eat more slowly, or be cautious drinking cold water. However, only in the most severe cases do they stop eating or cry out in pain - this is because it develops so slowly. If a dog or a cat “suddenly stops eating” as a result of dental disease, the problem has been building up for weeks or, more likely, months.
How does it affect my pet’s health? Well, in severe cases, malnutrition and dehydration can occur. However, any degree of dental disease sets up an inflammatory state, and bacteria can cross the damaged gums and access the bloodstream. A range of health conditions can be caused by dental problems, including heart disease, kidney failure, and even arthritis.
Can it be prevented? Yes, it certainly can! If you can stop the plaque from becoming established on the teeth, the later problems just won’t develop. The best and most effective approach is to regularly brush your pet’s teeth. Use a pet-safe toothpaste (some human ones can be toxic, especially to dogs) with a soft brush and gently brush their teeth daily, or every other day. This breaks up the biofilm and prevents tartar from forming. No other preventative approach is as effective. While chewing rawhide or bones makes the teeth look clean, it doesn’t remove the plaque below the gum line (which is the source of the health problems!). Sometimes, using a pet-safe mouthwash can help - it won’t remove plaque, but will slow down its formation, and it can be put in the drinking water as an extra “top up” protection.
Is it treatable? We routinely see animals for dental surgery - just like you’d get when you visit the dentist, we check all the teeth, then scale and polish them. Unlike in humans, though, dog and cat dentistry needs to be performed under anaesthetic… for very good reasons! It is unsafe for both the vet and the patient to attempt dentistry in a conscious animal; moreover, it is not possible to assess the teeth fully, meaning that problems may well be missed. In severe cases, we may have to remove diseased teeth, but our experience is that the patient is much, MUCH happier afterwards - it really makes you realise how much low-grade dental pain can drag them down.
If you’re concerned about your pet’s teeth, make an appointment to get them checked out by one of our vets! Our vets and nurses will also be very happy to show you how to clean your pet’s teeth, and recommend suitable products to use.