“Eighty five percent of pets have periodontal disease by the age of 3.” That is a staggering statistic, and yet dental disease is often the most overlooked and ignored aspect of our pets health. And for obvious reasons, pets can’t brush their own teeth and few of us as owners are committed enough to brush their teeth for them. It is important however to understand the health consequences of poor dental hygiene and why preventive dental care is recommended so strongly by your veterinarian.
Periodontal health refers to the health of the tissues around “perio” the tooth “dontal.” The tooth is made up of the crown, which is the portion we can see above the gumline and the root which is below the gumline. The root is held in place in the socket by a periodontal ligament. Plaque develops when bacteria and saliva cover the teeth, this is the stage most of us brush away daily to prevent further damage. When the plaque is not cleared from the surface of the tooth it will harden into tartar. That’s the stuff the hygienist scrapes away during your visit to the dentist. We all know that this can be uncomfortable — now imagine asking a dog or cat to sit still, open their mouths and let the veterinarian scrape literally years of tartar from between the teeth and under the gumline, not likely right? That’s why dental cleanings on animals are so involved.
General anesthesia is required to safely keep the patient quiet and still, while protecting the airway and being able to fully assess the condition of all of the teeth (dogs have 42 and cats have 30)!
Once that cement-like tartar develops, an anaerobic bacterium called Porphyromonas grows. These bacteria are nasty critters, and much more harmful to the bone, tooth structures and ligaments around the teeth than the tartar itself. The periodontal ligament breaks down, and the bone around the tooth is eaten away. The tooth then becomes loose, and if severe enough, then the jaw can break. Not to mention what happens as the bacteria seed the rest of the body, leading to infections on the valves and lining of the heart, the liver, and the kidneys, or anywhere else the blood may carry it.
Periodic professional cleanings have six basic steps:
• Visible tartar is chipped away using special instruments.
• Scaling of finer tartar deposits is done using an ultrasonic (high frequency) scaler.
• Periodontal pockets are probed and recorded in the dental chart.
• Special tools are used to plane the roots below the gumline to achieve a smooth root.
• The enamel is polished
• The mouth is treated with an antibiotic disinfectant, and a fluoride treatment is applied.
Once deep periodontal pockets develop, an X-ray is required to assess whether the periodontal ligament is damaged, whether there has been bone loss and whether there is a bacterial abscess in the root of the tooth. Bone loss is irreversible. If a tooth is abscessed, then it must be removed. This often requires a surgical flap in the gingival tissue and removal of enough bone to access the root. Following extraction, the bone is smoothed and the gingiva is sutured closed over the socket. This becomes more of an oral surgical procedure than a dental cleaning and is where the cost starts to rise. Deep gingival pockets with no abscess can be filled with a special antibiotic gel to prevent further damage.
Obviously, the goal is preventive dental care on your pet. This includes regular dental exams (many veterinarians offer this as a free service), periodic cleanings and an at-home maintenance program. Periodic routine cleanings, while not inexpensive, far outweigh the seriousness of a more extensive procedure. In the next article, I will discuss the most effective home care that you can implement once the teeth have been cleaned of heavy tartar.
Veterinarian Tom Suplizio practices at the Vail Valley Animal Hospital and ER, with locations in Eagle-Vail and Edwards. For more information, call 970-926-3496 or visit www.vail valleyanimalhospital.com.