By Dr. Leslie Ross B.Sc D.V.M.
If you answered “Yes”, GOOD FOR YOU! Consider yourself to be a member of a select few in the group of pet owners. On the other hand, if you haven’t checked inside your pet’s mouth recently then you may be in for an unpleasant surprise! It is possible that instead of smooth, shiny, ivory-white teeth, you will see a build-up of rough, yellowish- brown deposits coating many of your pet’s teeth. Additionally, you may also notice reddened and swollen gums. In a more extreme case, you may actually need to brace yourself not to be overwhelmed by a malevolent odor wafting out of your pet’s mouth as he pants away. If you persevere with your examination, you may have time to observe a sludge-like thick, greenish-grey matter coating numerous teeth to such an extent that the individual shape of each tooth is lost. It is very likely that, in this case, you will need to be gentle and speedy with this exam, because it is very likely that your poor pet, in anticipation of more dental pain than he or she is already accustomed too draws back and avoids your efforts to continue with your exam,!
Grossed you out yet? Please be assured that this is not my objective. Although the above scenarios seem to be exaggerated, they are, in fact, quite common. Also, it is important to be aware that even if your pet’s teeth look o.k. on the outside, you are only seeing what is happening above the gumline, what is happening underneath where the tooth roots anchor the teeth to the jaw could be a totally different scenario! It may be just a matter of time for what is lurking deep to surface.
As a group, vets are very familiar with the challenges of tooth diseases of all sorts and we do our best to teach and promote basic preventative measures to help delay the onset and progression of tooth disease in all pets. Take, for example, events such as broken teeth. This risk can be significantly decreased by not allowing your pet’s access to bones, and avoiding rock-carrying and tennis ball and Frisbee play. (A trip to a well-equipped pet supply store can usually provide you with some tooth-friendly Frisbees, Kongs and soft rawhide alternatives that can keep your pet just as entertained) Regular tooth-brushing, optimally daily, is considered to be the “Gold Standard”of home care to help slow the onset and progression of dental plaque and calculus build-up. (Although often not a ton of fun, tooth brushing can be made into a more pleasant exercise if training starts early and rewards such as flavored tooth paste and dental treat rewards are coupled with the activity). Another very good preventive measure is to offer your cat or dog veterinary approved dental foods, dental chews and plaque inhibiting water additives. In the long run, these measures can generate a big-payoff in terms of general pet health as well as in more specific dental benefits. However, a word of caution regarding the use of non-veterinary approved over-the- counter dental prevention products. Some are more hype than help. Some can even be a health hazard to your pet. It is always best to keep your veterinarian informed about your interest in these products and rely on professional advice before implementing their long-term use.
Another important point to keep in mind is that no single product can perform miracles. Unrealistic expectations are the main cause of frustration and disappointment and can interfere with one’s dedication to these options. Also, it is important to be aware that although the preventive measures discussed above can provide significant dental benefits, to keep your pet’s teeth in the very best shape one must use every golf club in one’s bag, metaphorically speaking, and this includes regular annual dental assessments and cleanings performed by your veterinarian. Said another way, there is nothing that can be done short of mechanical and or surgical intervention to treat established dental disease.
I will now slightly digress to briefly discuss a fairly common misconception regarding the procedure of hand-scaling without the benefits of anesthesia.
As many pet owners may already be aware, this procedure involves the scraping off of tartar and calculus from teeth by hand with metal tools designed for this purpose. In more formidable cases calculus-cracking forceps may be used as well. This procedure, if properly performed, is not damaging to the tooth enamel itself however, it is potentially dangerous to the animal because the operator can cause damage to a pet’s mouth if the pet moves unexpectedly causing the sharp metal instruments to cut or gouge its gums or cheeks. It also has numerous disadvantages in comparison to dental cleaning under anesthesia; which I will now discuss.
Anesthesia enables the taking of dental x-rays that can reveal problems in a mouth that may externally appear to be in excellent shape Also, anesthesia allows for the complete visual examination of all surfaces of the teeth and all the hard to reach places in the mouth. Further, it allows for the important procedure of tartar and calculus scaling under the gum line, which is not possible in a conscious animal. These advantages are the reason that the common viewpoint of professionals is that hand scaling without anesthesia is considered to be beneath the standard of care expected of a veterinarian. A relevant statement from Dr. Fraser Hale, a dental specialist substantiates this viewpoint. “Do not hand scale in a conscious patient, it is bad dentistry, bad medicine and can make the animal more head shy and so less compliant with the tooth brush”. To summarize, the basic problem with hand scaling without the benefits of anesthesia is that one is only getting off the ugly tartar but not getting under the pet’s gum line where undetected problems may be brewing. Another dental specialist, Dr. Matther Lemmons, puts it this way” Hand scaling is like trying to fix a car’s bad transmission by washing and waxing the car. The teeth look nicer but the mouth is no healthier”.
Before finishing this article I would like to address, the concern of many owners about the risks imposed by general anesthesia. Although it can be hard on an owner’s nerves and sometimes on their wallets, modern methods make this process much less risky than ever before, and it allows for far greater health benefits in the long run, even for older pets. A healthy mouth leads to better health overall since serious tooth and gum diseases commonly lead to damage to other major body organs such as the kidneys and heart. It is far better for your pet to be completely toothless than to suffer in silence from a mouthful of rotten teeth. It certainly trumps living with the misery of dental pain; pain that is tolerated as a necessary burden of life since pets cannot speak up for themselves.