Vail Pet Talk column: Is dental disease really important in pets? |

Vail Pet Talk column: Is dental disease really important in pets?

Most of the bacteria, plaque and tarter on a dog's teeth are sub-gingival, meaning up under the gum; properly scaling and polishing cannot be done on an awake pet.
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February is National Pet Dental Health Month, and we get this question every year. And, just like you know the star of an action movie does not die in the first scene, you know the answer to this question: It is yes.

Perhaps a better question is, “Why is dental disease so important in pets?”

First, let’s look at some stats: 80 percent of dogs and cats have significant periodontal disease by age 2. Periodontal disease, or gum disease, is the No. 1 diagnosed condition of dogs and cats. Almost half of cats older than 6 have feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions. These are similar to cavities in people but are much more painful. Another interesting stat is one out of 10 dogs and cats will have a broken tooth

So, why should you care about periodontal disease, what with global warming and presidential elections looming? Because it is the thing most likely to make your cat or dog sick. Periodontal disease is not as “sexy” in the medical world as broken bones, cancer and diabetes, but it is much more of a problem.

The following conditions can all be attributed to an unhealthy mouth and periodontal disease: heart disease, strokes, kidney disease, liver disease, osteoporosis, bone and sinus infections, pregnancy problems and diabetes. That is why oral infectious diseases are known as “the silent killers.”

A New Pet Emerges

Despite the obvious disease processes mentioned above, you may not notice that your dog or cat is suffering from periodontal disease. Many cats with resorptive lesions carry on as if nothing were wrong, as do dogs with rotten teeth. However, once we remove the diseased teeth and treat the periodontal disease, a whole new cat or dog often emerges.

I call this “biologic dentistry” and use people with chronic, low-grade sinus infection as an analogy. People with chronic sinus infections are running at 85 percent efficiency; they work, go to the gym and function fine but are just a little “off” and often fatigued. Once treated, they often say, “Oh, I feel so much better. I didn’t realize it was affecting me so much.” Ditto for dental disease in pets.

The solution is to have your pets’ teeth professionally cleaned and examined every year. This needs to be done under general anesthesia or heavy sedation (which we do here but is poo-pood by academic organizations, for your information). This is for two reasons. First, most of the bacteria, plaque and tarter are sub-gingival, meaning up under the gum; properly scaling and polishing cannot be done on an awake pet. And second, a complete oral examination in a pet also cannot be properly done without anesthesia or sedation.

I would love it if we could do this without anesthesia or sedatives, but we simply cannot. Some would have you believe proper dentistry can be done by wrapping your pet in a blanket and speaking in a soothing voice. It cannot. I do not know of any dog or cat that will sit still for a scaling up under his or her gums without a sedative or anesthesia. We have found intravenous sedation to be both cost effective and medically effective in allowing us to do a thorough exam on pets with mild to moderate tartar.

When you are at your veterinarian’s office, we can show you effective ways to keep your pets’ teeth and gums healthy at home. Just like us, pets need regular home hygiene. You wouldn’t stop brushing your teeth and just let the dentist clean them once a year would you? Yuck. No way! There are a number or ways to tackle this problem, from brushing to oral rinses to chews to powders — all methods help.

So yes, dentistry is important in your pet. It is the No. 1 disease process, and in this author’s opinion, if you want your pet to live a long and healthy life, then take care of its teeth and gums.

Dr. Stephen Sheldon practices at Gypsum Animal Hospital. He can be reached at 970-524-3647, or online at

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