Pet Dental Awareness Month and the Ugly Truth Behind Gum Disease

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Teeth from a chihuahua that have never been cleaned and the jaw has broken from advanced dental disease.

When was the last time your cat or dog had a good, thorough dental exam by your vet? Can’t remember? Why not make an appointment during February, which also happens to be National Pet Dental Awareness Month? Here’s why you should…

While vaccinations and other health issues are usually more top of mind for pet owners, periodontal disease is the most common health problem that veterinarians find in pets, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and local vet Dr. Brenda McClellan, CSU Veterinary School graduate and co-owner of The Pet Wellness Clinic . “Dental health problems can be very painful for your pet and lead to serious systemic conditions in the heart, liver and kidneys.”

Another important reason is lifespan, adds McClellan. “Animals are living longer now than they ever have before, which means their teeth need to last a lot longer as well. There are exceptions, of course, but on average, most pets do not have good dental health.” In addition, one of the downsides of not keeping up with dental maintenance is that something needs to be done quickly, and often at a large expense for the owner.

The Real Impact of Gum Disease in Pets 

“People don’t realize that all bacteria from the mouth (in both animals and humans) gets into the bloodstream easily because the blood supply is just below the gums. And because teeth are also rooted all along the jawline, it’s easy for bacteria to get into the bloodstream and travel to various organs causing disease,” adds McClellan.

“How healthy is it below the gum line is what I want to know when I do a dental exam,” says McClellan. Bones and teeth grooves can pick up stains, but that’s OK. What pet owners really need to know is what you can’t see under the gums; that’s what’s most important to your pet’s overall health.”

Aside from the long-term health benefits of dental maintenance, McClellan has seen first-hand how much of an impact a simple dental cleaning can make. “I’ve seen a heart murmur clear up after a deep dental cleaning, as well as improved blood levels after a cleaning in animals with liver issues. In alternative situations, I’ve seen animals that need to have every last tooth removed because the gum disease is so bad.”

McClellan says small dogs and cats are the most at risk for dental disease because there is little breathing room between the teeth. Cats in particular are susceptible to resorptive lesions, which eats away at the root of the tooth. “The tooth itself can be spotless but the cat’s body starts absorbing the root of the tooth, making it basically into a shell that falls right out. It’s very painful. Around 50% of cats have this problem but it’s hard to notice without an exam. That’s why it’s so important to have a regular dental health check-up,” she adds. “We also frequently see broken jaws in cats and dogs from dental disease; it eats away at the jaw bone until it fractures.”

Example of a resorptive legion looks in a cat's mouth.

Example of a resorptive legion looks in a cat’s mouth. The tooth had to be removed.

You can see what's happened to the root of the tooth.

You can see what’s happened to the root of the tooth.

What About Dental Care for Exotics?

“As for exotics like ferrets rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, rats, and mice, they also need dental care, says Jennifer Stetler, Certified Vet Tech (CVT) and practice management for Aspenwing Animal Bird and Animal Hospital  “Ferrets are very similar to cats so it’s important to brush their teeth. C.E.T toothpaste (a product line designed by vet dentists) is a good option for paste, and there are a variety of brush sizes. Ferrets also do well with cat greenies to help with tartar management”.

“Rabbits, chinchillas and guinea pigs need their molars filed down regularly because they are open-rooted living teeth and will constantly grow,” adds Stetler. “It’s important to come in twice a year to check as each pet requires something different. Mice and rats in particular can get incisor problems, so those sometimes need to be trimmed.”

The exotic pet’s diet also makes a big impact on their dental health, especially when it comes to managing tartar buildup and tooth growth. Stetler says hay helps the animal grind down their teeth, but it’s also important to pair the hay with plenty of water. She also encourages owners to pay attention to any changes in behavior, feces or and eating habits, because it might be a sign the animal’s dental health should be assessed.

What Can Pet Owners Do?

“Pet owners can help between dental visits by providing brushing, treats and prescription food that manages tartar control, in addition to an additive owners can mix into the drinking water. A wellness insurance plan can also help manage the cost of dental cleanings, surgery and emergency room visits,” says McClellan. “Based on your pet’s health history, your vet can suggest how often dental visits are needed.”

The cost of a real, thorough cleaning runs about $250 or $300, but can be more expensive if tooth extractions are required. Unfortunately, that cannot be determined until the animal is having the cleaning procedure done. In order to get under the gum line safely, animals need to be put under anesthesia. That’s why it’s a bit more expensive.

Cat mouth before a dental cleaning.

Cat mouth before a dental cleaning.

The same cat mouth after a good, thorough cleaning.

The same cat mouth after a good, thorough cleaning.

For regular cleanings at home, you can use a toothbrush designed for pets (there are various sizes) with a choice of C.E.T paste, or you can put a bit of gauze around your finger with some paste and brush the teeth as frequently as possible that way.

McClellan cautions against cheap cleanings that don’t require anesthesia because they are not worth the money. “ There’s a fad going on right now with anesthesia-free dental cleanings — but it’s false advertising. It’s a whitening, not a cleaning. An effective dental cleaning in animals needs to be below the gum line to help with periodontal disease,” adds McClellan.

“Practicing good dental hygiene at home in addition to regular cleanings by your veterinarian is the most efficient and cost-effective way to extend your pet’s life, while keeping them comfortable and pain-free. Your choice as a pet owner is to stay on top of it as maintenance, or spend a whole lot of money for emergency issues.” says McClellan.


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