Symptoms of dental disease:
Dental disease is a silent killer of dogs and cats, as the symptoms are usually not very obvious. There are several possible reasons for this.
Many owners don’t regularly examine their pet’s mouth, or even know what symptoms to look for. Some animals can be difficult to examine and in many cases the symptoms of the disease can be mistaken for other illnesses.
For these reasons, many animals that do not have regular check-ups are diagnosed in the later stages of the disease, by which time it has often caused irreversible damage and much silent suffering to the animal.
Most people don’t realise that halitosis, bad breath or “doggy breath” is actually abnormal and is one of the first symptoms of dental disease. What you are smelling is bacteria and dead and rotting tissue.
Other symptoms may include ANY of the following:
- Discoloured teeth, especially near the gums
- Red or bleeding gums
- Excessive drooling
- Dropping food or difficulties picking it up
- Pawing at the mouth
- Changes in chewing or eating habits (e.g. refusing hard food)
- Loose or missing teeth
- Cracked or worn teeth
- Decreased appetite
- Unusual swelling below the eyes
- Change in behaviour (e.g. aggression when head is touched)
Can any animal get dental disease?
Research has shown that by the age of three about 70% of dogs and 80% of cats will have developed dental disease. It is thought that the main cause of this is the diet that they are fed at home.
Wild dogs and cats once hunted live prey, which they would tear apart with their teeth and chew vigorously, effectively cleaning their teeth and gums in the process. Today however, most owners feed their pets soft commercial foods and homemade diets that do not require as much chewing as whole prey.
These foods in comparison do not clean the teeth and gums effectively, resulting in dental disease.
Another factor implicated in the development of dental disease is genetics. Certain breeds are more susceptible to developing dental disease due to the shape of their mouths and properties of their saliva. These breeds require extra dental care (outlined later) which should be started early in life.
Some examples of these breeds include:
- Small breeds such as Maltese terriers, Chihuahuas, Toy Poodles
- Short-nosed breeds such as Pugs, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Shih Tzus, Pekingese,
- Persian cats
- Specific breeds such as spaniels, poodles, greyhounds, Abyssinian cats
Causes of dental disease
Dental disease often begins with a build-up of plaque, an invisible film of microscopic food particles, saliva and bacteria. This begins to form on the surface of the teeth immediately after eating. Left untreated, this film then binds with calcium from the saliva and hardens into tartar (calculus) on the surface of the teeth.
Plaque and tartar can lead to gingivitis (inflamed gums), which can be quite painful. The periodontal tissues (structures surrounding the teeth that hold them in their sockets) eventually become damaged and the teeth begin to loosen.
Mild periodontal disease can be reversed, but advanced disease can ultimately lead to irreversible tooth and bone loss.
Cats in particular are prone to their own type of dental disease, known as Feline Odontoclastic Resorptive Lesions, which results in the tooth being eaten away much like human tooth decay.
Dental disease not only affects the structures in the mouth, infection from the mouth can be inhaled, leading to respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia. The bacteria can also be absorbed into the bloodstream and transported all over the body, especially to the kidneys, heart, lungs and liver leading to severe and debilitating systemic disease.
Dental disease is less commonly triggered by injuries (tooth fractures), tumours, behaviour (e.g. excessive chewing of hard objects or excessive grooming), viruses (e.g. FIV or Fe V in cats) and congenital abnormalities (e.g. cysts, retained juvenile teeth).
Treatment and prevention
The first step to treating your pet’s dental disease is to obtain an accurate diagnosis from your vet. By examining your pet’s mouth, they will be able to ‘grade’ the disease and tell you wether it is mild, moderate or advanced. A thorough physical examination will also allow them to determine whether there is any concurrent disease involved such as tooth root abscesses, fractures or tumours, which may require a completely different approach to treating the problem.
Mild dental disease can often be improved by adopting a combination of the following strategies.
These can also be used to prevent dental disease in the future, and for this reason there is nothing wrong with adopting one or all of these strategies early on in your pet’s life. Our vets and nurses can help you decide which of the following will suit your lifestyle and your pet’s individual needs.
Prescription dental diets
Diets such as Hill’s Prescription Diet t/d are specifically designed for dogs and cats with dental disease. They possess unique fibre patterns and contain certain chemicals that clean the teeth as your pet bites into them. This is a complete and balanced diet which means you do not need to feed your pet anything else. Hill’s Vet Essentials range of foods are also formulated to help prevent dental disease in dogs and cats.
Raw meaty bones
Bones such as chicken wings or necks for cats and small dogs, and larger bones with lots of meat and sinew for bigger dogs. By stripping the meat off the bone, your pet effectively flosses its teeth, which significantly reduces the amount of plaque and tartar present. In general, try to feed softer bones that won’t break your pet’s teeth and are less likely to shatter and scrape the mouth and gastrointestinal tract after swallowing. Always feed bones raw, preferably at room temperature.
Remember that bones contain calories, especially if they contain marrow or have any attached fat, so make sure you take this into account when deciding how much to feed your pet each day to prevent weight gain.
Treats such as Oravet Dental Hygiene Chews, Greenies, rawhide bones, raw carrots and other specifically designed dental chews clean the teeth of your pet by making them use their teeth for longer periods. These are a great alternative to other treats such as Schmackos which contain empty calories and are gone in one gulp!
Water additives such as Aquadent is designed to be added to your pet’s water bowl in order to be ingested when your pet drinks water. It works by killing the bacteria in the mouth that cause dental disease, and also freshens their breath in the process.
Although it may sound ridiculous to some people, this is actually the best way to physically remove any plaque and food build-up from your pet’s mouth, short of having your vet perform a scale and polish under general anaesthetic.
This is most effective as a preventative (that is to stop the build-up of plaque) but can also help reverse mild dental disease. It is not recommended that you start brushing your pet’s teeth if there is moderate to severe dental disease present, as it will be quite painful, and as a result your pet will learn never to let you near its mouth again.
These cases will first require veterinary treatment, after which brushing can be commenced once the gums have had a chance to heal.
We recommend specially made rubber finger brushes and edible flavoured pet toothpaste, NOT human toothpaste (as most pets hate mint flavour and do not know how to ‘spit’!) or hard human toothbrushes.
At first your pet will probably not enjoy the process very much, so you will need to be patient and introduce each item slowly and incorporate lots of rewards and praise, as with teaching any new trick.
Ask any of our staff for tips on how to brush your pet’s teeth.
Scale and polish
If your pet’s dental disease is moderate to advanced, then your vet will most likely recommend that they be booked in for a ‘dental’ under general anaesthetic. Not only does this allow the vet to treat the infection and give the teeth a very thorough clean (called a ‘scale and polish’), but it also gives them an opportunity to examine the entire mouth for any other abnormalities without the animal moving or becoming stressed in the process.
We always try to save as many healthy teeth as possible, however if the teeth are severely diseased (e.g. loose, rotten, broken or if they contain large holes) then it is often necessary that they be extracted.
It is important to know that having your pet’s teeth cleaned under anaesthetic will not necessarily stop the disease from returning again in the future. Many animals will require repeat anaesthetics to clean off any plaque or tartar that has accumulated since the last dental. The frequency of these anaesthetics can be significantly reduced and even avoided by strictly adhering to the preventative strategies mentioned above.
Things to avoid
Unless your pet is on a particular diet for another health problem, or is severely painful in the mouth and awaiting an anaesthetic to have its dental disease treated, we recommend that the following foods be avoided in order to keep the teeth healthy:
- Soft foods which do nothing to keep the teeth clean- e.g. canned dog food, dog roll/sausage, mince etc.
- Very hard foods which can cause tooth fractures or mouth injuries, e.g. cooked bones, very large thick bones (shins, femurs, long bones).
- Very hard chew toys or other play objects such as rocks that may break the teeth or wear them down abnormally.