February is National Pet Dental Care Month. For pet owners, this can mean not only helping their pets to live healthier and longer lives, it can also mean saving money in the short term by saving on dental care products and services.
Additionally, pet owners can save money by preventing long-term, hard-to-detect health problems like kidney, liver and heart failure, often brought on by untreated and unnoticed dental infections. In studies performed by the American Veterinary Medical Association, pets suffering from internal disease and organ failure as a result of dental disease have much higher vet bills than pets that get regular, preventive dental care.
Several times a day, I look at the teeth and gums of cats, dogs, rabbits and other companion animals. Every day, at least half of the pets I examine have some form of dental disease.
Recently, I treated 18 patients. Of those, four cats had severe dental tartar and gingivitis, while three had moderate dental infections. Two of those cats were in kidney failure. One cat had an oral growth, which may be cancerous. She is scheduled to have surgery to remove the mass and diagnose the tumor type.
Two dogs had severe gum and dental infections. Four dogs showed moderate dental tartar. A total of 13 pets had dental disease. All were still eating. Not one of the owners suspected an oral health problem.
Most pet owners are unaware of how to evaluate their pet’s oral health. Many people only check the front teeth, which get very little tartar. If you want to examine your pet’s mouth, it is important to slide the lip up and back while keeping the mouth closed. Next, open the mouth to look inside for problems. The following are signs that it’s time for a trip to your vet:
l Discolored teeth, tartar or plaque on teeth.
lLoose or broken teeth.
l A red line along the gums.
l Pus or discharge around the teeth.
l Lumps, bumps or growths in or around the mouth.
l Bad breath.
If your pet has any of the above signs or you cannot check your pet’s mouth, schedule a vet visit as soon as possible. A relatively new and inexpensive in-office test called Orastrip can help you and your vet determine if your pet has periodontal disease, which can mean more serious infection under the gum line. Your vet can advise you about the need for a dental cleaning, which when performed properly, creates clean teeth and gums and should include cleaning the pockets between the teeth and gums.
Many pet owners put off having dental care performed on their pets because of their fears about anesthesia. A thorough dental cleaning and X-rays can only be performed under anesthesia, regardless of how nice and cooperative your pet is.
New anesthetics and preoperative blood work and EKG’s make this procedure less risky for pets. In fact, leaving the teeth unattended creates a much higher chance of health risks than anesthesia does. Anesthetic risks are minimal, even in pets in their upper teens to 20s. There is no comparison for the quality of improved health and decrease in infection that comes from doing periodontal cleaning (under the gum line).
Not all veterinarians offer dental digital X-rays with their dental cleaning services, so ask about this service at your vet’s office. It is wise to have X-rays performed annually.
My experience with performing dental X-rays in animals has yielded surprising results. In over two dozen pets this past year, my staff and I have discovered bone loss and jaw fractures, all of which owners were unaware. These were caused by ongoing, undetected infections in the tooth roots.
In some pets that displayed behavior changes as the reason for a vet visit, tooth root abscesses were discovered. These could only be detected with dental X-rays. Their bad, grumpy or unpredictable behaviors stopped when infected teeth were removed.
An additional advantage of regular dental care is the information your vet gets from blood work and other tests performed before anesthesia. This testing detects early warning signs for a range of illnesses, which can be treated in their early stages.
Pets don’t lie around crying or refusing to eat when they have dental problems. Instead, they adapt their eating habits to avoid chewing on a diseased tooth.
If you haven’t had your pet to the vet in the past year, be sure to schedule a dental checkup. Expect your vet to do a thorough exam and be prepared to ask questions about the need for dental care and which procedures, anesthetics and home-care products can keep your pet’s teeth and organs the healthiest and save you money.
Dr. Cynthia Maro is a veterinarian at the Ellwood Animal Hospital in Ellwood City and the Chippewa Animal Hospital in Chippewa Township. She writes a biweekly column on pet care and health issues. If you have a topic you’d like addressed, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.