By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
February is National Pet Dental Health Month, which means it’s time for a reminder to pet parents about the importance of staying on top of your dog’s or cat’s oral health. Here’s a quick quiz to test your knowledge of the condition of your pet’s teeth and gums:
Question No. 1: Most dental disease in dogs and cats occurs below the gum line, where you can't see it. True or False?
If you answered true, you’re correct. Bacteria that can't be seen can damage the tissues connecting the teeth and jaw. That’s why it’s important to have your veterinarian examine your pet’s mouth at each wellness checkup.
Question No. 2: Of the four choices below, which is the most important in maintaining your pet's dental health in between professional cleanings?
- Feed him crunchy kibble
- Brush his teeth
- Use pet-safe mouthwash to control stinky breath
- Give him dental chews
If you chose number 2, you’re correct. Regularly brushing your pet's teeth is the single most effective thing you can do to keep your pet’s teeth and gums in good condition. Daily brushing is ideal, but if that’s not workable, set a goal of four to five times a week.
Question No. 3: What percentage of dogs and cats have periodontal disease by the age of 3?
- Less than 10 percent
- 20 to 30 percent
- 50 to 60 percent
- 70 to 80 percent
- 90 to 100 percent
Believe it or not, the correct answer is number 4 — 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats have some form of periodontal disease by the age of 3.
Signs of Possible Dental Disease in Your Pet
Redness of the gums
Tenderness around the mouth and/or teeth
Drooling or dropping food
Bleeding from the mouth
Loss of appetite/poor appetite
Obviously, if you notice any of these problems with your pet, it’s time to make an appointment with your veterinarian to prevent a dental problem from negatively impacting your dog’s or cat’s health and quality of life.
Top 5 Signs of Dental Pain in Pets
Since our animal companions can’t talk to us and are stoic even in the face of significant discomfort, it’s important to learn to look for other clues. There are five primary signs of dental pain in pets:1
1. No signs at all
Dogs, cats and other companion animals rarely show signs of dental pain. This is a survival mechanism, an instinctual behavior that our domesticated animals have in common with their wild ancestors.
2. Bad breath
The odor is a byproduct of the bacterial metabolic process. In pets with periodontal disease, there are more bacteria in the mouth, and so the odor increases. “Doggy breath” or “tuna breath” is not normal and needs to be evaluated.
3. Altered behavior
Chewing on one side of the mouth, dropping food, running away from the food dish, crying when yawning, hiding, not grooming themselves and acting “grumpy” are all signs of dental pain. You know your pet better than anyone, so look for abnormal behaviors.
Bleeding from the mouth is usually due to periodontal disease, but it could also be evidence of fractured teeth, lacerations or ulcers on the tongue or gum tissue or the presence of an oral mass. Look for thick, ropey saliva, spots of blood found on toys or beds or drops of blood in the water or food dish. If the periodontal disease is severe enough, you may notice bleeding from the nose or bloody discharge when your pet sneezes.
5. Return to normal
Once your veterinarian addresses your pet’s oral issues, your pooch may show he’s feeling better by acting like a puppy again or your kitty might seek extra attention.
I would add that if you can see red, inflamed gums in your pet’s mouth, or teeth with an obvious buildup of brown or greenish plaque and tartar, you can assume that if your dog or cat isn’t already in pain, he will be soon without intervention.
Plaque on Your Pet’s Teeth Can Cause Irreversible Gum Disease and Other Serious Health Problems
When plaque is allowed to build up on your dog’s or cat’s teeth, within a few days it hardens into tartar. Tartar adheres to the teeth and irritates the gums. Irritated gums result in an inflammatory condition called gingivitis. Pets with gingivitis have red rather than pink gums, and they often also have stinky breath.
If the tartar isn’t removed from your pet’s teeth, it builds up under the gums, eventually causing them to pull away from the teeth. This creates small pockets in the gum tissue that trap additional bacteria in the mouth. At this stage, your pet has developed an irreversible condition called periodontal disease, which not only causes considerable pain, but can also result in abscesses, infections, loose teeth and bone loss.
How quickly this process takes place in your pet’s mouth depends on a number of factors, including her age, overall health, diet, breed, genetics, and the frequency and quality of dental care she receives. Your pet’s oral health affects more than just her mouth. Studies have proved a conclusive link between gum disease and heart disease in humans and dogs (studies on cats are sparse, but it’s reasonable to assume a similar link exists for felines).
Researchers also suspect certain strains of oral bacteria may lead to heart problems. Some types of bacteria found in the mouths of dogs produce sticky proteins that can adhere to artery walls, causing them to thicken. Mouth bacteria are also known to promote the formation of blood clots that can damage the heart.
5 Tips to Help Keep Your Pet’s Teeth and Gums in Great Shape
1. Diet. Your pet’s diet plays a significant role in the amount of tartar she collects on her teeth. Raw diets — even prepared, ground raw diets — help control tartar. Raw ground bone is a gentle dental abrasive that acts like fine sandpaper when chewed, which helps remove debris stuck on teeth.
The meat contains natural enzymes, and in addition, raw food doesn’t stick to teeth, unlike starchy kibble. It's a complete myth that kibble helps keep your pet's teeth clean. Kibble is no better for your pet’s teeth than crunchy human food is for your teeth. That being said, even raw fed pets acquire plaque and tartar, so don’t assume food alone will save your pet from dental disease.
Additionally, there are a few supplements that research shows improves gum health and the oral microbiome, including ubiquinol and probiotics. Adding these supplements to your pet’s protocol can improve his oral defenses and reduce the rate at which degeneration occurs.
2. Raw bones. For dogs and cats, chewing plays an important role in removing plaque and tartar from teeth. Even though there are plenty of toys and food products on the market that can be of some help, raw bones are really the best option, and few dogs, at least, will turn them down.
It's important the bones are raw, because cooked bones can splinter and damage your pet's gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The size depends on the size of your pet and whether she’s such an eager chewer that she risks injuring herself or even breaking teeth. Your dog should always be supervised when she’s working on a bone to minimize the risk of choking or tooth damage, and raw bones should be refrigerated between chewing sessions.
3. Daily brushing. Brush your pet’s teeth, preferably every day. A little time spent each day brushing your dog’s or cat’s teeth can reap tremendous rewards in terms of his oral health and overall well-being.
4. Regular at-home 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 across the roof. After you do this a few times, you’ll become aware of any changes that occur from one inspection to the next. You should also make note of any difference in the smell of your pet’s breath that isn’t diet-related.
5. Veterinary checkups. 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, if necessary.
If you’re conscientious about your pet’s dental home care and she doesn’t have any special situations that predispose her to tartar build-up or other dental issues, she may never need a professional cleaning by a veterinarian. However, pets with extreme tartar build-up, badly inflamed gums or oral infections need extra help.