Pet Talk: Furry friends need consistent dental care

Pet Talk: Furry friends need consistent dental care

By Sarah Netherton/University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

Dental care is as important for the overall health of pets as it is for people.

Katherine Kling, a veterinarian at the UI Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, says periodontal disease, which refers to the breakdown of the support structures around the tooth, is extremely common in pets.

"By the age of 2, approximately 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats will have periodontal disease," Kling said. "As in human oral health, periodontal disease develops when the microscopic plaque biofilm on the teeth triggers inflammation leading to the loss of the tooth's attachments."

Periodontal disease occurs in stages. In the earliest stage, called gingivitis, the gums are inflamed. This stage of the disease is reversible, so it is important to identify and treat the disease before it progresses. In this stage, only the gums are affected.

When periodontal disease progresses beyond what is reversible, the bone and ligament that surrounds the teeth are affected. Even though periodontal disease at this state is not reversible, the progression can be slowed with regular home care and professional cleanings under general anesthesia every six to 12 months. The best home care is daily tooth brushing.

According to Kling, owners may not be able to tell whether their pet has dental disease just by looking in the pet's mouth. The amount of buildup on the teeth is not necessarily indicative of disease. For this reason, Kling recommends having a tooth by tooth exam under general anesthesia performed by your veterinarian, and this exam should include dental radiographs, or X-rays. In addition to detecting dental disease, a yearly exam by a veterinarian will catch tumors or other abnormalities of the mouth.

"Small-breed dogs, brachycephalic breeds (animals with short noses) and cats should have their teeth examined and cleaned once a year," Kling said. "Smaller breeds have the same number of teeth as their larger counterparts, but crowded into smaller mouths. This crowding can pave the way for periodontal disease. Large-breed dogs should have their teeth examined and cleaned every 12 to 24 months."

The procedure for cleaning teeth is much the same for people and pets. Each tooth is examined and probed, and X-rays of the full mouth are taken to get a clear picture of what is going on. An ultrasonic scaler is used to remove the plaque biofilm from the surface of the teeth, and then the teeth are polished to deter the buildup of plaque and bacteria. Unlike a routine dental visit for a person, a veterinary dental cleaning is performed while the animal is under general anesthesia with the airway protected.

Because prevention is key for a pet's dental health, Kling recommends that owners brush their pet's teeth to help prevent periodontal disease. The important part about brushing is that it needs to be consistent; brushing daily is best.

Of course, your pet also has to be willing to let you brush his or her teeth. It's very important that the pet enjoys tooth brushing; a negative experience will not be helpful to establishing a routine.

Kling advises owners to be patient.

"Let your pet get used to the experience gradually. Let them lick some toothpaste from your finger and feel they are getting a special treat," she said.

Only toothpaste marketed for pets should be used. Human toothpastes contain fluoride, which can be toxic to pets.

"Since pets are living longer today, dental care is imperative to help improve an animal's quality of life by promoting a pain-free mouth," Kling said.

An archive of pet columns from the UI College of Veterinary Medicine is available at vetmed.illinois.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy at beuoy@illinois.edu.

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