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

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We Brush Ours, So Why Not Theirs?

Pet Column for the week of January 26, 2009

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

Imagine never brushing your teeth for a lifetime. Bacteria would invade where your tooth and gum meet, providing a wonderful home for plaque to develop into calculus. Your tooth's roots would begin to decay, and the odor from your mouth would be sufficient to keep skunks at bay.

We dress our Chihuahuas in sweaters and drop off our mutts at doggie day care, but most Americans still do not brush their pets' chompers. The "Pets Need Dental Care, Too" campaign, funded by Hill's Pet Nutrition and several leading veterinary organizations, is trying to change that statistic. They have named February Pet Dental Health Month.

"Periodontal disease in humans is associated with several systemic problems including heart and liver disease, as well as Alzheimer's and low birth weight babies," explains Dr. Carol Akers, a dentistry resident at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. "We can extrapolate these effects to our pets as well," she notes.

Gingivitis is the first stage of periodontal disease. It is characterized by inflammation at the gum line and mild bleeding. If left untreated, periodontal disease will invade further to destroy gums, teeth, and supporting structures. According to the American Dental Veterinary Society, 70 percent of cats and 80 percent of dogs have some form of the disease by 3 years of age.

"Gingivitis is a reversible problem," explains Dr. Akers. "With a dental exam and professional cleaning we can restore their teeth to a normal state." However, if you wait too long, permanent changes will result. These include irreversible bone loss, chronic pain, continuous foul breath, and eye problems, secondary to tooth root abscesses, just to name a few.

Many owners take their dogs and cats to a veterinarian for a yearly exam. When the veterinarian explains that the patient's teeth are in need of an oral exam and cleaning, many owners never follow up. Some believe that dental care for dogs and cats is not worthwhile and others are concerned with the risk associated with the procedure, which includes general anesthesia.

Although there is always a small risk when an animal is placed under anesthesia, the benefits far outweigh the risks. "It is much harder to manage teeth once they have reached a state of permanent damage," notes Dr. Akers. For example, once 50 percent of the bone around a tooth is destroyed, the tooth is doomed to fall out. Since there aren't dentures for dogs yet, it makes dental care all the more important.

The other misconception owners have is that as long as their pet continues to eat, the animal is not in any discomfort. "Dogs will almost always eat, even with severe dental pain," says Dr. Akers. If they don't eat, they don't survive. One of the main reasons periodontal disease is so widespread and undertreated is because, other than bad breath, it has no obvious signs owners can detect until the very late stages.

While there are special treats and toys marketed to reduce dental disease, "the only sure way to prevent calculus build up is to make brushing your pet's teeth part of your daily routine," says Dr. Akers. Once calculus forms, the only way to remove it is with an ultrasonic scaler.

If you would like more information on dental disease in companion animals visit, the site for the international campaign against dental disease in pets, or talk to your local veterinarian.