February is National Pet Dental Health Month.  For nearly three decades, veterinarians around the country have been using this month as an extra opportunity to educate pet owners about the importance of dental health.  According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, 80% of dogs and 70% of cats show signs of oral disease be age three.  Is your pet one of them? To find out, lift up your pet’s lip and look at her teeth and gums.  If the teeth are perfectly white, the gums are an even light pink, and the breath is fresh, your pet probably has good oral health.  If not, you should ask your veterinarian if it’s time for a cleaning.

Dental tarter is a yellow or brown mineralized material that accumulates on teeth.  The mineral matrix traps harmful bacteria.  Over time, these bacteria begin to cause inflammation along the gums and the ligaments that connect them to the teeth.  This inflammation is known as periodontitis.  It most often appears as dark pink or red patched between teeth, a red line along the gums, or bleeding gums .  Many, many pets experience this common disease.  While most owners do not think of periodontitis as a serious problem, veterinarians know the ugly truth.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Oral Health states, “studies have demonstrated an association between periodontal diseases and diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and adverse pregnancy outcome.”  In veterinary patients we also see links between periodontal disease and damage to the kidneys and liver.  In dogs and cats with gum inflammation, showers of bacteria frequently jet through the blood stream.  The average patient will have a positive blood culture every ten days.  These bacterial showers have been definitively linked to reduced life span.  Regular dental care may add anywhere from two to five years to the life of your family pet!

In clinical practice, I see pets without regular dental care getting “old” at much younger ages than in other pets.  Owners just convince themselves that their twelve-year old cat’s kidney failure is just a product of age or nature.  In reality, many of these pets could have lived longer, happier lives with regular dental care.

Again quoting the U.S. Surgeon General, “oral health is related to well-being and quality of life… Oral and craniofacial diseases and conditions contribute to compromised ability to bite, chew, and swallow foods; limitations in food selection; and poor nutrition… Oral-facial pain, as a symptom of untreated dental and oral problems and as a condition in and of itself, is a major source of diminished quality of life.”

Yes, toothaches really hurt.  Even for your pet.  Of course, animals are programmed by nature to hide pain until it becomes extreme.  We know that their nervous systems experience the same pain signals as our own.  We also know that tooth pain is one of the most intense and significant types of pain that can be experienced.  Be kind to your pet and take care of her teeth!

Part of your pet’s six-month wellness visit should include a thorough oral examination.  At the first sign of gum inflammation or other oral disease, you should schedule a dental cleaning. Using light anesthesia, your veterinarian or licensed veterinary technician will remove the tarter accumulation, evaluate the depth of gum pockets, examine the tooth surfaces for damage or decay, polish the enamel, and apply fluoride to strengthen the teeth.  If any gum treatments or extractions are required to maintain your pet’s health and comfort, your veterinarian can perform them during the procedure.

Most routine dental procedures occur within your family veterinarian’s general practice.  However, some dogs and cats visit board certified veterinary dentists for root canals or repair of fractured teeth.  Most commonly, these procedures are used to avoid extractions in working dogs or show ring champions.