Pet dental issues common, often preventable

A dog gets his teeth cleaned. Courtesy photo by Alison Elward/ Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine

Dental problems for dogs and cats are common, say veterinarians around the area. With vigilance, knowledge and the right tools, however, many issues can be prevented.

One of the main culprits of dogs and cats needing professional oral help is periodontal disease, which can manifest itself in multiple ways.

“We have a lot of dental calculus and mild gingivitis,” said Dr. Paula Lenhard of Banfield Pet Hospital in Winchester. “The most common thing we treat is the calculus and the plaque and tartar buildup, which leads to loose teeth because bacteria got into the ligament that holds the tooth in.”

This issue of buildup may seem relatively benign, but veterinarians say that the resulting conditions can be anything but.

“Certainly the big concerns are going to be pain and infection but more importantly (is) what it leads to secondarily,” said Dr. Jean Loonam, of Kingdom Animal Hospital in Winchester. “One of the biggest ones we worry about is cardiac health. When you have chronic dental disease, you basically open an area where bacteria can go into the blood and travel to other organs and cause different issues.”

Pet owners have a few options when it comes to the treatment of this affliction.

Depending on the severity of the periodontal disease, which has four recognized stages, according to the American Veterinary Dental College, veterinarians may recommend a professional cleaning of the pet’s teeth.

“Basically, to get all of it off there and to treat them, you need to clean the teeth,” said Dr. Timothy Schmitt, of Linden Heights Animal Hospital in Winchester. “Usually we X-ray to make sure there aren’t any other problems there to evaluate those teeth and check to see if there’s any bone loss or damage to the roots of the teeth.”

Another option that doesn’t necessarily require anesthesia entails hand scaling, or manually scraping tartar and calculus off the pet’s teeth, which Loonam said, can be “pretty uncomfortable.”

If those methods are ineffective or the animal has advanced stages of oral pathology, a tooth extraction may be necessary, but veterinarians in the area said they try to avoid them when possible.

If an owner is unsure if their pet’s dental health is up to par, or if an issue is suspected, there are some distinguishing behaviors. The No.1 sign is bad breath, but other indicators exist.

“Most of them, they’ll try to eat,” said Loonam. “They may drop food they may prefer canned to dry food. Sometimes they’ll paw at their mouth or they may not be as active playing with their toys or chewing on bones.”

Most dental issues with pets are preventable, said Schmitt, with one exception being injuries resulting from chewing things that their teeth can’t handle.

“Things that arise that you’re less likely to be able to prevent could be from chewing,” he said. “We have some dogs that chew on rocks. If what they’re chewing on is harder than a tooth, then there could be problems.”

The consensus among veterinarians in the area is that the best way to prevent any medical intervention, like an anesthetized tooth cleaning, is vigilant brushing. Establishing brushing when the pet is young is recommended, as they become accustomed to it and tolerate it better.

“I try to encourage owners to start brushing,” said Lenhard. “If they can do it a couple times a week, that’s better than none. There are some clients that do it every day. They teach them from the time they’re puppies. If you can get them to start early, it’s just a general maintenance, like nail trimming or grooming.”

Commercial products are out there for any pet owner who wants to establish a brushing regimen.

“There are vet toothbrushes available,” said Schmitt. “There are finger brushes, you can use a soft toothbrush from a pet shop. The toothpaste has to be animal toothpaste. You don’t want to use human toothpaste because it isn’t meant to be swallowed. Xylitol can be present in human toothpaste, which is poisonous to dogs.”

However, some pets or situations don’t necessarily lend themselves to brushing.

“Some pets, though, just aren’t amenable to brushing,” said Schmitt. “An older person may not be able to do it… Everybody is different and every pet is different. It’s a matter of discussing with your vet what to do because dental disease is something that we frequently deal with.”

For those animals that may have the early stages of periodontal disease or any combination of the symptoms that result in that diagnosis, there are treatments that don’t require a visit to the veterinarian.  There are several commercial products that work to combat the symptoms of less-than-stellar dental hygiene in pets.

“The (commercial) chews work well,” said Schmitt. “There are some that have enzymes in them that break down the bacteria in there. There are additives that you can put in the water or in the food as well, but none of them are as good as the brushing.”

Schmitt recommends a specific brand, which has a trusted history.

“One of the ones that has been around for a long time is C.E.T.,” he said. “That’s a veterinary brand that’s been approved by the American Veterinary Dental Society. It’s a rawhide chew. They have an enzyme on them so that helps break down some of the bacteria as well.”

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or nbudryk@nvdaily.com