By Dr. Mark Mills, North Deering Veterinary Hospital
Meiko the Siamese was seven years old, and gorgeous: Glowing green eyes, glossy tan coat with black highlights, perfect weight. Her owners obviously doted on her, and looked on modestly as I praised her beauty. Meiko was really enjoying the attention too. But when I went to open her mouth, she froze and jerked her head away. After a few minutes of gentle coaxing, she reluctantly allowed me to look in there, and I saw why she resisted. Her teeth were covered with a thick brown layer of plaque, and several sections of her gums were red and inflamed.
February is Pet Dental Health Month, and dental disease is the most overlooked health problem in pets. It is present in the vast majority that I examine. Most pet owners hardly ever think about their pet’s teeth until there is a problem. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s more that they think if the dog or cat has a problem, they’ll show obvious signs of it.
Ever have a toothache? I have, and that constant pulsing pain was maddening. But unless the pain is overwhelming, the majority of cats and dogs with mouth pain from dental problems just live with it. It doesn’t mean that they don’t hurt: It just means that they can’t call the dentist themselves.
What can you do to help? Regularly examine your pet’s mouth, at least once a month (do this carefully, as nobody wants to get bitten: most pets are just fine if you are gentle). Lift the lip and take a quick whiff. If there is a foul odor (think low tide), they probably need dental care: that smell is from plaque (which is decaying food and bacteria) and sometimes gingival infection. Examine the teeth for fractures: chewing on hard things, especially bones, sticks, deer antlers, etc. can really do a number on the molars, and does not really do much to clean the teeth. Broken teeth with exposed nerves will become infected and need to be removed. Look for any loose or discolored teeth or inflamed gums. All of these are signs that your vet should have a look.
Aside from having them cleaned, brushing teeth is the single best thing that you can do for your pet’s teeth: no, I am not kidding. YouTube has a number of videos that show how to do it. You need to use pet toothpaste, and either a soft toothbrush or one just for pets: my favorite are little ones that fit on your fingertip. How often? Experts say twice a day, but even once a week can help. Feeding dry food can help as well.
Veterinarians deal with dental disease the same way your dentist does. Ultrasonic cleaning and polishing to remove plaque; extraction or repair of damaged teeth; fluoride treatments to minimize plaque and cavities. Anesthesia is needed to properly clean the teeth and inspect for and deal with damage, but that small risk is worth it in the long run.