Pet Talk

We’re all ready for a breath of fresh air, and hopefully your pets are too. ‘Doggy breath’ is a common problem in most families, and ‘Fred’ can frighten off the kids with his kisses. Veterinarians have long heard the refrain, He’s just not enjoyable to be around anymore.  Bad breath comes on quickly and doesn’t seem to go away, progressively worsening to the point of affecting your pet’s overall health and your bonding/interacting. 

That stink is, quite simply, bacteria. Bacteria progresses to plaque formation. Plaque is a mixture of saliva, bacteria, skin cells, sometimes broken hairs, food leftovers, etc. that form a film on the tooth’s surface. When that plaque hardens like cement, it is called ‘calculus.’  If you have ever tried to chip this gunk off your dog’s or cat’s teeth, you know it is hard as rock. You’ll break your fingernail before you break its stranglehold on the teeth. Bacteria, in turn, jump-start gingivitis, or gum inflammation.

The sequence goes something like this: Bacteria build-up leads to gingivitis and plaque, which in turn hardens into dental calculus. This cycle then congregates bacterial hiding spots in and among the infected gums, recessed gum lines, and nooks and pockets in the calculus. Underneath the gumline, where you cannot see, are dark, warm havens for harboring pus in what are called subgingival pockets. This rarely causes cavities in dogs, but does start destruction of the bone sockets holding onto the tooth’s roots.  Destruction of the bone surrounding the teeth is called periodontal disease, which ultimately leads to pain, more serious infection, and tooth loss.

 The statistics will alarm you; they certainly do me. According to veterinary dental experts, 80 to 85 percent of all dogs and 70 percent of all cats have periodontal disease by 3 years of age or older. THREE years old!  Most humans don’t give dental care a thought until much later in life.

Other organ systems, very important organ systems, can be affected by dental disease—and these organs are far from the mouth. The heart, kidney, liver and even joints are affected by the bacteria in your pet’s mouth. We don’t like the smell bacteria creates, and the kidneys certainly do not like deposits of bacterial complexes. You see, on a microscopic level, oral bacteria can invade the bloodstream through the compromised gums, creating bacteremia. The body will stick an antibody on that invader (an antigen), and the resultant antigen/antibody complexes will get deposited in the kidney, shortening kidney function. 

The same holds true for the heart, where a bacterial invader can make its home on the bases of the heart valves, causing a potentially fatal condition called valvular endocarditis. All caused by the originator of that ‘doggy breath’: bacteria in the mouth. So we may think that our sweet 15-year-old cat with kidney disease is just that: old. But years before, you may have been able prevent or stave-off these problems with dental care. Who knew? Ironically, that same pet with dental disease-induced kidney problems may now be unable to undergo anesthesia to correct their mouth health!

Hence the need for pre-dental procedures. Thorough, full-animal exams are the start, along with a good history from the owners. If a dentistry cleaning/polishing/repair is deemed necessary, preanesthetic bloodwork is paramount. With elderly patients, analyses of organ chemistries and blood counts are essential, not optional. These are the tests that ultimately ensure safe anesthesia and relieve owner anxiety over anesthetizing their babies. There is simply no better way to properly clean a diseased mouth than doing it on a sedated patient. It is the most thorough, complete and precise method of oral care.

As with all things, prevention is the best medicine. That translates into brushing your pet’s teeth. For those of you with new holiday pets, starting to get your puppy or kitten accustomed to brushing is the first critical step. Start ‘brushing’ their teeth with your fingers and proceed to wipes with plaque-inhibiting chemicals. You can then proceed to brushing with dog toothpaste and a brush, or just stick with the dental wipes. For those who need to teach an old pet new tricks, begin slowly and reward the positive behavior of accepting the preventive care. Gradually increase the frequency until you can fully clean the teeth, and continue to reward with love, praise and, heck yeah, treats!

How should this important part of disease prevention be done? Gently make circular motions on the tooth surface with wipes or a brush, stimulating the gums but not damaging tooth or gum. Consistency is key. So many times we start something with vigor and life gets in the way. It’s hard enough getting your kiddos to brush, I know, but try to remain committed to consistency and you will all breathe a lot easier.