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At Orchard Vets, we not only want to help your pets if they are poorly, but also prevent them from getting unwell in the first place. And probably the most common illness we see in pets is dental disease.

As many as 80% of pets over three years old suffer from some degree of gum disease. This starts as very mild changes: just a small amount of reddening of the gums, known as gingivitis. If not addressed this progresses to periodontal disease, loss of tooth attachment and even the tooth itself, and painful infections in the mouth. These infections can even pass into the bloodstream, potentially causing problems with other organs such as the kidneys or heart.

The cause of all these problems? Bacteria, which form into a sticky ‘biofilm’ known as plaque. This sticks to your pet’s teeth and gums, and the bacteria produce toxins that lead to gum inflammation. We can’t see plaque, but we don’t remove it, it hardens into tartar or calculus – the brown material you may be able to see on your pet’s teeth. Calculus is rougher than the tooth surface, so bacteria stick to this even more easily.

Eventually, the inflamed gums start to retreat away from the bacteria – a process known as gingival recession. The bone in which the tooth sits is also attacked and lost. If enough attachment is lost, the tooth may fall out. This process is very painful and uncomfortable for the pet, though they will almost never show this obviously. One of the most common comments we hear when checking patients after a dental procedure is that the animal seems so much ‘brighter’, ‘happier’ or ‘younger’ – now they are no longer suffering from chronic dental pain.

So what are the signs of periodontal disease?

  • Reddened gums – in the early stages, you may only see a little gingivitis or redness of the gums. If a good preventative care regime is established now, these changes may be reversible.
  • Gum recession – the edge of the gum where the teeth sit should be a straight line. If this starts to form a curve, you are seeing gingival recession. This is not reversible, but starting homecare at this stage could still stop it from progressing further.
  • Bad breath – we don’t expect dogs or cats to have minty fresh breath. However, it isn’t normal for them to have foul smelling breath. This is due to the production of gas by bacteria in the mouth.
  • Tooth loss – in some cases, if periodontal disease is severe enough, teeth may fall out. This is never normal – just like us, pets shouldn’t lose their adult teeth. If your pet has lost one tooth, chances are high that other teeth in the mouth have painful problems that need addressing.
  • Facial swelling – the roots of dogs’ and cats’ teeth are as long, or even longer than the crown (the part that is visible above the gum line). Infections around the roots of the teeth can sometimes lead to painful swellings of the face, or discharging wounds as the infection bursts
  • through to the surface. Inflammation or infection at the roots of the teeth can sometimes also cause signs such as sneezing, nasal discharge, or discharge from the eyes.

With severe periodontal disease in toy breed dogs, bone loss in the lower jaw can weaken it so much that it can fracture – even just with the action of chewing!

So how can you prevent dental problems in your pet? The most important thing is to find some way of cleaning their teeth at home!

  • Brushing – brushing your pet’s teeth is the best way to prevent build up of tartar and bacteria. However, it needs to be done regularly. It takes about three days for plaque to harden and form into tartar, so brushing less often than this will be ineffective. I often speak to people who say they have their pet’s teeth cleaned at the groomers. As most pets go several weeks between grooming appointments, this is unlikely to have any real effect if this is the only tooth cleaning they get. Daily brushing is best of all, as it gives bacteria very little chance to cause damage.
  • Using a pet toothpaste is important. They contain enzymes which continue to work against bacteria after you finish brushing. They also don’t froth – pets don’t like it!
  • Dental diets – did you know that a standard dry kibble diet doesn’t actually have any proven benefits to the teeth over a wet diet? However, there are special dental diets available that will clean your pet’s teeth as they chew. These are particularly useful for cats, who are less likely to tolerate tooth brushing than dogs. As a matter of fact, I’m still waiting to meet a cat that will allow their teeth to be brushed, including my own, so if you own that cat, let us know! Cats are also very prone to getting severe, painful cavity-like enamel defects with even a small amount of gingivitis. I recommend providing a proportion of your cat’s diet as dental kibble from a young age to reduce this risk. A dental diet has a large kibble size, so pets are more likely to chew them, rather than swallowing them whole. They have a softer, slightly fibrous texture that wipes the tooth clean as the pet chews. They are very useful for toy breed dogs and cats, but larger dogs will often still swallow the biscuits whole.
  • Dental treats/ chews – A dental chew – such as Virbac’s VeggieDent chews – can be a good way to help clean your pet’s teeth. Just like brushing, they need to be given daily or every other day to have much effect. Ensure that you are feeding the right size chew, and don’t forget that while these are low fat treats, they still contain calories. You may need to reduce their food allowance to avoid weight gain. Dental chews don’t do anything to clean the teeth at the front of the mouth that the dog doesn’t use for chewing.
  • Water additives – these contain ingredients which act against the bacteria in the mouth. This helps reduce their numbers and the damage they cause. The downside of water additives is that they do not have an abrasive effect to remove plaque. They are still useful at slowing periodontal disease when used alone, or in conjunction with other methods of teeth cleaning.

Veterinary dental treatments – Whenever you bring your pet to see us, we examine their mouth. The vet (or nurse) will advise you of their findings. They may recommend that you book the pet in for a full dental procedure. This is done under general anaesthetic, and we:

  • Examine the mouth and throat in full
  • Ultrasonically scale the teeth
  • Check the teeth above and below the gumline using dental probes and radiographs
  • Extract any teeth that need to be removed.
  • Polish the teeth to give a smooth surface.

If we carry this out at an early stage, it is less likely that teeth will be severely affected and need extraction. We brush our teeth twice daily, and still visit the dentist for an examination and scaling regularly, so we should really plan for most pets to have a full treatment under anaesthetic every few years. The better your home care, the less frequent these will need to be!

Dr Lucy Fleming MRCVS