With the advent of spring sunshine, colorful flowers, and warmer weather, those of us who have dogs and cats find ourselves thinking and worrying about the resurgence of fleas and ticks, ear infections, and itchy skin flare-ups. After all, we are just now starting to turn up the external thermostat that will ultimately bring us to a state I fondly call the "New Jersey Incubator" (hot and humid, just the way micro-organisms like it in the lab incubators). But, while these topics have more of a seasonal nature, a challenge that we, in general veterinary practice, see and deal with all-year-round is dental disease in the mouths of our beloved dogs and cats. Halitosis (bad breath), gingivitis (inflamed and infected gums) and the deposition of plaque and tartar are equal opportunity afflicters no matter the season.
So, go ahead and do it….smell your pet’s breath. Stinky, neutral or fresh? If you said stinky, it’s NOT normal. Bad breath often signals active disease in your pet’s mouth. The good news is that you can detect this all on your own at home before you ever show up on your veterinarian’s doorstep. Why does this matter? Because poor oral health can frequently cause both pain for him or her and reduce your pet’s lifespan. Few pets will raise their paw and tell you when their teeth or gums hurt, yet dental disease is the single most frequent problem cited in companion animals, with upward of 85% of all dogs and cats suffering from this condition (AVMA). As with humans, poor oral health can lead to disease in distant body parts such as the liver, kidneys and the heart and ultimately shorten your pet’s lifespan. As of yet, I have been unable to teach my own dog and cats how to brush and floss every day.
Home exercise for you: find Fido or Garfield, flip his upper lip (or get your veterinarian to show you) and take a peek.
However, your awake dog or cat won’t sit for very long and let you (or me) do a detailed oral evaluation and thorough teeth cleaning. In theory, that would be ideal, but in reality it is totally impractical. In-depth and correct dental cleaning for a dog or cat requires general anesthesia. (Do not buy into ads for “anesthesia-free” dentals. This is a method usually employed by untrained, unlicensed individuals to do little more than “brush” your pet’s teeth under the guise of safety and savings) The bona fide dental procedure must include oral X-rays as part of the evaluation process and deep cleaning with an ultrasonic or piezio-electric cleaner. These steps can only be accomplished with a dog or cat under general anesthesia.
To allay your concerns, today’s modern anesthesia, with comprehensive monitoring, is safer than it has ever been. And while a small anesthetic risk always exits, it is more than offset by the long term good health provided by a healthy mouth.
Ask your veterinarian to show you all steps of a complete dental which should include: general anesthesia, a detailed oral exam, dental X-Rays to visualize roots and identify disease below the gum line which cannot be seen by the naked eye, ultrasonic (or piezio-electric) scaling, low speed polishing, sub-gingival cleaning, fluoride application, extractions if needed, antimicrobial gel treatment, and pain management.
And Voila! Below is what your pet’s mouth will look like after the procedure:
What can you do at home in between these cleanings, you ask? Incorporate any or all of the following: daily brushing, special dental diets, approved dental chews, and antiseptic water additives and sprays. These measures will add years of health and pain-free companionship for your special furry family member. So worry about ticks in April and October, fuss over ear infections all summer long, quell the itch in Spring or Summer, but pay heed to your pet’s gums, teeth, and mouth every day, 365. That way, Fido and Garfield will be around longer to share their companionship and unconditional love, and that, in turn, will make you live longer too!