By Dr. Becker
According to Dr. Brooke Niemiec, diplomate of the American Veterinary Dental College and a fellow of the Academy of Veterinary Dentistry, oral/dental disease is the number one medical problem among pets today, with over 70 percent of dogs and cats suffering some form of periodontal disease by the age of two.
This epidemic of oral disease in pets is because most dogs and cats don't receive regular home and/or professional dental care, and they don't show signs of discomfort or pain until oral disease is pronounced.
Oral Disease Isn't Just About Your Pet's Mouth
Studies have linked periodontal disease in both humans and pets to systemic diseases of the kidneys and liver, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes complications, problems during pregnancy, and even cancer.
These serious health concerns develop or are made worse by the constant presence of oral bacteria flushing into the bloodstream through inflamed or bleeding gum tissue. The good news is that many of these conditions improve once the dental disease is resolved and good oral hygiene is maintained.
In addition to systemic diseases, infections in the mouth and gums often create other problems including tooth root abscesses, jaw fractures, nasal infection, eye loss and oral cancer.
There are also a number of other painful conditions of the mouth including cavities, broken teeth, orthodontic disease, and in cats, tooth resorption, an extremely painful condition in which the kitty's immune system attacks its own teeth.
Obviously, mouth problems are not something to be taken lightly by veterinarians or pet owners. Left untreated, oral disease can significantly impact both the quality and quantity of your pet's life.
Older Pets Have Higher Risk of Painful Mouth Conditions
Unfortunately, the risk of painful mouth conditions – in particular, gum disease, tooth resorption and oral cancer – is dramatically increased for older dogs and cats. This means that for your senior or geriatric pet, proper dental care is critically important.
Daily homecare and as-needed professional cleanings by your veterinarian are the best way to keep your pet's mouth healthy and disease-free. They are also important for pets with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure.
Veterinary dental cleanings do, of course, require general anesthesia. Nonprofessional dental scaling (NPDS), also known as anesthesia-free dentistry, isn't a substitute. A truly thorough oral exam and cleaning can't be accomplished on a pet who is awake. It's dangerous to use sharp instruments in the mouth of a conscious animal, and needless to say, the procedure is very stressful for the pet.
Anesthesia and Older Pets
While many pet parents, especially those with an older dog or cat, are very anxious about anesthesia, it is actually safe when performed appropriately and at current standards.
Many pet owners believe their dog or cat is simply too old for anesthesia – this is a very common misconception among not only pet parents, but also many veterinarians. Age itself is not a disease, so if your pet is otherwise healthy, his age won't increase his risk of anesthetic complications.
The reason dogs and cats past a certain age are approached more cautiously for anesthesia is because older pets are more likely to have a systemic illness. That's why additional tests are run on older dogs and cats prior to scheduling procedures requiring anesthesia. These tests usually include a complete blood panel, urinalysis, and chest x-rays and a BNP test which checks for some types of heart disease.
If your pet's test results show no problems with her general health, there is no increased risk for anesthesia. And even if there are some borderline numbers in an animal's test results, we must weigh the benefits of creating and maintaining good oral health against the potential risks associated with anesthesia.
A well-trained, skilled and experienced veterinary staff, following the most current standards of practice, can safely anesthetize senior and geriatric pets, as well as pets with significant systemic disease. By using the latest anesthetic monitoring equipment, pets can benefit from the same diagnostics as people undergoing anesthesia. Make sure to check with your vet about how anesthetic monitoring is performed during your pet's procedure and recovery period.
Tips for Keeping Your Dog's or Cat's Mouth Clean and Healthy
Ideally, you'll be able to avoid anesthesia for your pet as much as possible by performing home dental care throughout his life. According to Dr. Niemiec, plaque forms on your dog's or cat's teeth within 24 hours, which is why daily brushing is highly recommended. For help getting started brushing your cat's teeth, view my instructional video. A video for dog owners can be found here.
Other tips for keeping your pet's mouth healthy:
- Feed a species appropriate, preferably raw diet. Giving your dog or cat the food her body was designed to eat sets the stage for vibrant good health. When your pet gnaws on raw meat, in particular, it acts as a kind of natural toothbrush. This is especially important for kitties, since they don't enjoy chew bones like their canine counterparts do. Raw fed animals have substantially less dental disease than their dry fed counterparts, but they can still develop problems in their mouth. Unfortunately, feeding great food alone is not always enough to prevent dental disease for the life of your raw fed pet.
- Offer recreational, raw bones. Offering your pet raw knuckle bones to gnaw on can help remove tartar the old fashioned way -- by grinding it off through mechanical chewing. There are some rules to offering raw bones (not for pets with pancreatitis, diseases of the mouth, weak or fractured teeth, resource guarders, "gulpers," etc.) so ask your holistic vet if raw bones would be a good "toothbrush" for your dog. I recommend offering a raw bone about the same size as your pet's head to prevent tooth fractures.
- If your dog cannot or should not chew recreational raw bones, I recommend you offer a fully digestible, high quality dental dog chew like Mercola Healthy Pets Dog Dental Bones. If your dog is getting up in years or has sensitive teeth, consider the Mercola Gentle Dental Bone to help control plaque and tartar. The effect is similar to chewing raw bones, but safer for powerful chewers or dogs that have had restorative dental work done, and can't chew raw bones.
- Perform routine mouth inspections. Your pet should allow you to open his mouth, look inside, and feel around for loose teeth or unusual lumps or bumps on the tongue, under the tongue, along the gum line and on the roof of his mouth. After you do this a few times, you'll become sensitive to any changes that might occur from one inspection to the next. You should also make note of any differences in the smell of your pet's breath that aren't diet-related.
- Arrange for regular oral exams performed by your veterinarian. He or she will alert you to any existing or potential problems in your pet's mouth, and recommend professional teeth cleaning under anesthesia, if necessary. Obviously, preventing professional intervention is the goal, so be proactive in caring for your pet's mouth.