Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Keep Your Pet Smiling with Good Dental Hygiene

Pet Column for the week of July 9, 2001

Related information:

Services - Dentistry

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

Imagine that you never went to the dentist. Imagine that your gums became so sore you could not chew your food. This unpleasant scenario is suffered by millions of household pets simply because their owners do not realize the importance of routine dental care.

When a pet will need a professional teeth cleaning varies by age and by size. Small breeds, such as Yorkshire terriers, toy poodles, and dachshunds, are particularly susceptible to dental disease and may require a professional teeth cleaning as early as 1 or 2 years of age. Other dogs may not require a teeth cleaning until they are 7 years old.

Dr. Robert Ulbricht, a veterinary dental resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, says, "Oral exams should be performed yearly along with routine vaccinations to determine whether the teeth require cleaning."

Gingivitis is an inflammation of the gums caused by plaque, a soft, brown substance composed of glycoproteins and bacteria. As plaque ages, it becomes mineralized to form calculus, which is hard and coats the teeth like a shell. If left untreated, gingivitis causes bone loss and causes the gums to recede from around the teeth, making them loose and painful. These teeth may have to be extracted to stop the infection.

A veterinarian can remove the plaque and calculus that is present on the visible portion of each tooth, as well as perform a deep cleaning under the gum line. This is the best way to stop the inflammation of the gums. Most pets do not allow their mouths to be held open long enough for a thorough cleaning to be performed; therefore the pet is usually put under general anesthesia during the procedure. While the animal is asleep, an instrument called an ultrasonic scaler is used to chip away the plaque and calculus, making the teeth white and shiny again.

The scaler makes many microscopic scratches on the tooth called microfractures. If these scratches are not removed by polishing, food can accumulate in them and plaque and calculus can come back faster. For this reason, the teeth are then polished so that they are smooth again.

Dr. Ulbricht says, "With severe gum disease, you can detect a foul breath odor called halitosis. Your pet may also have a decreased appetite and may display behavioral changes." For example, your pet may pick up a piece of food and then drop it or may run away from the food bowl in alarm. A pet that has eaten dry chow all its life may suddenly want only soft food.

Gum disease can cause problems beyond the mouth. It can allow bacteria to penetrate blood vessels in the gums and travel to all parts of the body in the bloodstream. Once inside the body, bacteria can cause complications such as heart problems, liver disease, and kidney disease.

The best defense against dental disease is prevention. Yearly check-ups are a must, and you can also improve your pet's dental health between visits to your veterinarian. If your pet is not currently eating a prescription dental diet, you may want to ask your veterinarian about switching to a food designed to reduce plaque and calculus build-up. These foods are specially designed to maintain their structure when the animal bites into them. The chewing action rubs the food particles roughly across the teeth, removing plaque and calculus with each bite.

Routine brushing of the teeth is also recommended. If your pet has never experienced this, then you may want to start out by simply rubbing a soft cloth across the teeth. After your pet has become accustomed to that, you can start using a finger brush available from your veterinarian. Special toothpastes for animals come in flavors such as chicken and liver.

Making sure that your pet's teeth and gums are healthy can help ensure that your pet stays healthy overall. If you have questions regarding dental care, please contact your local veterinarian for more information.