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

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Total Health Requires Dental Care

Pet Column for the week of July 22, 2002

Related information:

Services - Dentistry

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

Dr. Sandra Manfra Marretta, a board-certified veterinary dentist, and Dr. Keith Stein, a veterinary resident in dentistry at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, are on a mission to educate pet owners about the importance of routine dental care.

Making sure that your pet's teeth and gums are healthy can help ensure that your pet stays healthy overall. "I have had people not even realize that their pets were feeling bad because the decline was very gradual. After a thorough dental treatment is done, the owners report that their dog is like a puppy again!" says Dr. Stein.

Here are some tips on keeping your animal's oral and overall health ship shape.

Bad breath is a bad sign. One thing that people often do not realize is that bad breath is not normal. Dr. Stein says, "If your pet has breath that is very unpleasant, that is a sign of gum disease. While pets can have a distinctive odor to their breath, it should never be foul smelling."

Dental problems cause eating problems. With severe gum disease, your pet may have a decreased appetite and may display behavioral changes. For example, your pet may have trouble chewing, may chew on one side, or may pick up a piece of food and then drop it. A pet that has eaten dry chow all its life may suddenly want only soft food and may start refusing treats. Pets with gum disease may also paw at its mouth or may rub its head on the ground. Excessive salivation or bleeding may also be observed. .

Diet affects dental disease. Dr. Manfra says, "Soft food diets and semi-moist diets are more likely to promote gum disease than is dry food. These foods tend to stick to teeth and promote plaque formation."

There are also prescription dental diets designed to reduce plaque and calculus build-up. These foods 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.

But diet alone will not prevent all dental problems. "People have told me that they don't need to do anything for their pet's oral health because they only feed dry food and don't give any treats, but this is not necessarily true. Once it is mixed with saliva even dry food can stick to the teeth," says Dr. Stein.

When oral problems develop, get them treated. The best way to stop inflammation of the gums, when it occurs, is a thorough cleaning. 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.

Since most pets will not allow their mouths to be held open for a thorough cleaning, the procedure usually requires general anesthesia. While the animal is asleep, an instrument called an ultrasonic scaler is used to gently remove plaque and calculus, making the teeth white and shiny again. This procedure is followed by a polishing to smooth irregular surfaces in the tooth enamel that can hold food particles and other debris that can promote gum disease.

"We have known people who are afraid to anesthetize their older pet for dental treatment, but in the meantime the quality of life of the pet is very poor," says Dr. Manfra. "Today anesthetics are very safe and it is really much better and safer for the animal to have periodontal disease treated before the problem becomes severe."

While the age at which a pet will first need a professional dental cleaning may vary from animal to animal, routine dental care should begin when the animal is young.

Good dental health starts at home. Routine brushing of the teeth can reduce the amount of plaque and tartar that build up on the teeth and cause gum disease. It is best to start this type of routine when your pet is young, but even older pets can gradually get used to it if you simply rub 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 malt flavors.

The best defense against dental disease is prevention. A thorough oral exam should be performed every time your pet receives its yearly vaccinations. Remember, pets age much faster than humans do, so dental problems can develop quickly. One year of an animal's life is the equivalent of 5 to7 human years. Requesting that a thorough oral exam be performed annually can help ensure that dental problems are recognized before they become serious.

If you have questions regarding dental care, please contact your local veterinarian.