Did you know that February is National Pet Dental Health Month? A common complaint that we hear from owners is that their pet has bad breath, or halitosis. Usually this is caused by either a build-up of tartar on the teeth or gingivitis (or both!).
We usually start to explore the issue by looking in the mouth for tartar/plaque accumulation. Plaque is a colorless film of bacteria, while tartar is calcified plaque that can attach to the tooth both above and below the gumline. We also look for gingivitis, or inflammation of the gums, that often occurs secondary to tartar.
If we note signs of dental disease, we will then recommend dental cleanings and/or extractions (depending on the severity of disease). Dental cleanings should be performed under anesthesia, a position which is adopted by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Pets can be uncooperative patients at the best of times and the only way to ensure that we get a thorough evaluation and complete cleaning performed is to have the pet put under anesthesia. We put our patients under general anesthesia instead of just sedating them so we can place a breathing tube that protects the airway and lungs from all of the tartar we clean off the teeth.
When we discuss your pet’s dental health, it is about more than just what we can see on the teeth in an exam. The tartar that you can see above the gum goes below the gumline as well. Over time, this leads to bone loss around the tooth. In very severe cases on the lower teeth, the entire bone can be eaten away – resulting in a jaw fracture. Severe bone loss around the upper teeth can lead to an oronasal fistula – this means a direct communication between the sinus and the mouth! Even if the bone loss is not severe enough to cause a fracture or fistula, it often results in loss of the tooth and significant discomfort.
Dental disease that is not addressed in a timely manner can even lead to heart disease. It has been shown that when tartar accumulation is severe, bacteria can get into the blood stream and settle on the heart valve, causing a disease known as endocarditis. If you think your pet has dental disease, please don’t wait! It will only get worse with time, and your pet will thank you with fresh breath after their cleaning.