February is Dental Month. That means we need to make sure your pets teeth are sparkling and their breath smells fresh.
As a toddler your parents would have shown you how to clean your teeth twice a day. But what about our pets? They can’t do their own. Should you clean your pet’s teeth? How? Are there other ways to look after them? And what if they have tooth problems, what happens then? These are very common questions.
Read on to find out the answers.
The Function of Teeth
Teeth help our pets eat, pick food up and to groom themselves. All teeth have their own roles and each tooth is important. The incisors are at the very front of the mouth between the upper and lower canines. They help to pick food up and, in herbivores they tear grass from the ground. They also are used for shearing and grooming.
The canines are also known by many as the fang teeth. These are more prominent in carnivores and omnivores. They are used for piercing prey in the wild when hunting and to inflict pain when defending themselves and hunting.
Finally, there are the back teeth, the molars and premolars. These help to grind and chew food. In carnivores they should be in a pattern where they fit into each other and meet to act like scissors, allowing flesh to be pulled from the bone.
Problems with any teeth can cause severe pain and may stop your pet eating, change the way they eat, affect the amount of food absorbed into their body or alter their behaviour, often leaving them withdrawn
Teeth in different animals are different. Dogs and cat’s teeth are like people’s. They first develop temporary deciduous teeth which fall out at three to six months old when adult teeth start to erupt (come through the gum). Once present, they have their adult teeth they for life. If they become damaged or fall out the impact lasts forever, though effective treatment may improve the damage. This means it is very important to make sure your dog or cat’s teeth are as healthy as possible.
The Main Problems with Pets Teeth
No matter what the breed, adult dogs should have 42 teeth and adult cats should have 30 teeth.
Some breeds such as pugs, who have a flat face, don’t have enough space for their teeth. Their teeth then sometimes turn around in the gums to find space to fit. Also, the top and bottom rows may not line up like they should. If an animal’s teeth don’t line up properly it can cause problems.
1) It can be harder for them to eat.
2) The bottom teeth may press into the top gum and vice versa instead of touching a tooth causing damage, pain and infections. This usually happens at the back of the mouth where it is harder to see.
3) Some of the teeth may not have space to leave the gum so become impacted which can be very painful.
Other problems that may develop are:
1) Breaks to the tooth caused by fall/ chewing on something which is too hard
2) Wearing of the teeth caused by chewing on stones/ tennis balls
3) A build-up of hard brown tartar
4) Bad breath (halitosis)
5) Red and/ or bleeding gums
As an owner you may not notice any problems as pets often still eat completely normal even while in pain. The lack of signs of dental problems is why regular dental checks (at least annually) are important.
Prevention is Better than Cure
With dental problems preventing problems is much more effective than trying to treat them later. Without prevention the gum and all of the structures holding the teeth in place will likely become inflamed and, over time, damaged. Sometimes this damage isn’t reversible.
Preventative home treatment can stop your dog from needing an anaesthetic and any dental work.
The best times to start with prevention are when your dog or cat are still young, but it’s never too late to start.
If you don’t start with home treatment soon after your pet has dental treatment in the hospital it is likely their teeth will worsen over time once more and will need more procedures after a year or two. Whenever your pet has a dental procedure, they will be placed under anaesthesia and they will have their teeth scaled and polished. A fluoride treatment will be applied at the end. This removes all the tartar and plaque from their teeth but does not prevent it from returning.
The Best Preventative Method is Tooth Brushing
Brushing does not help against hard brown tartar but is very effective at getting rid of the invisible plaque. To be effective brushing is a big commitment which should be done DAILY. Skipping days makes it less effective.
Most dogs and cats won’t suddenly allow you to brush their teeth. They need to be trained to slowly accept it. Training them to accept brushing can take a few weeks and should not be rushed.
You need to use pet tooth paste. Human toothpaste contains fluoride which is poisonous and, unlike people, dogs and cats cannot spit it out.
Unlike human toothpaste, most dogs or cats tooth paste tastes meaty to make it more appetising to them.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to teaching your dog (or cat) to accept having their teeth brushed. Each step should be done daily for four to five days with your dog remaining completely calm before you move onto the next step. If your dog becomes stressed or frightened go back a step or two.
1. Place some toothpaste on your finger and put it near your pet’s mouth so they can lick it off.
2. After a few sessions try lifting their lip whilst your other finger has toothpaste on it.
3. Rub it on your dog’s teeth/ gums very gently with your finger.
4. Buy a finger brush. Put place a small amount of toothpaste on this that put the brush on the end of your finger and carefully brush the teeth using circular motions. Only do it very gently. Start only doing it for 5-10seconds and slowly build up the time.
5. Continue gradually building it up until you can confidently brush all the teeth whilst your dog remains calm and happy.
I Can’t Brush my Pet’s teeth, what else can I do?
Many people can’t brush their dog’s teeth and it’s even harder with cats. Though brushing is the best way don’t despair, other things can be trialled.
1) Dental Chews
(a) Dental chews sold by your Veterinarian help to prevent plaque and tartar build up on teeth by scraping it off.
(b) Dogs tend to take these like treats and often enjoy them. Be cautious of over the counter dental chews which can be hard to digest.
(c) The disadvantages of dental chews are;
1. They don’t help clean teeth which aren’t in a normal position as they rely on teeth being close to each other.
2. They don’t help the incisors at all as dogs don’t chew with them
3. They only work on specific areas of teeth where the chew is rubbed against
4. These chews are high in fat so are not good for dieting dogs
5. Cat’s don’t tend to chew so they won’t help them.
2) Veterinary Prescribed Dental Diets
a) Your vet may prescribe special dental diets.
b) These are usually large pieces of kibble which your dog has to chew
c) They also usually have ingredients that dissolve tartar and reduce plaque
d) The advantages are
i) They help the teeth stay clean
ii) They can be used with cats
e) The disadvantages are
i) They are quite expensive
ii) They can’t always be used alongside other health problems such as kidney disease which can also be helped by specific diets.
3) Dental Rinses, Gels or Sprays
a) These products often contain the antibacterial Chlorhexidine.
b) Chlorhexidine stays on the teeth and gums for some time
c) It slowly breaks down the plaque film and helps to prevent it building up further
d) It reduces any infection which is already present
e) The advantages are
i) It reduces the risk of gum infection
ii) Helps to keep teeth clean
iii) It’s easier than brushing
f) The disadvantages are
i) A lot of dogs dislike the taste of it
ii) Gels need to be rubbed onto the teeth which may not be tolerated in some dogs
iii) It doesn’t scrape away the plaque/ tartar
My Dog has Chew Toys, will they help?
Sometimes chew toys help to some great extent. Your dog must be chewing them a large amount and unless they are rough they won’t help. Some chew toys are actually too hard for dogs so can damage the teeth.
If my Pet has their Teeth Removed will it still be able to eat?
Dogs and Cats cope incredibly well without teeth. Some are keener to eat after they’ve had their teeth extracted as they are no longer in pain. Others are more sociable than beforehand due to the reduced pain.
What’s Involved with a Dental Appointment?
At most appointments your vet can assess your pet’s teeth. With a dental appointment or examination your vet will closely examine all your pet’s teeth as well as their gums, tongue and the roof of their mouth. If any area of the mouth isn’t seen your vet may miss a problem. A quick glance from across the room as your dog is growling or cat hissing sadly isn’t enough. Also, examinations through a muzzle aren’t thorough.
During the appointment your vet will check for tartar build up, gum disease (also known as gingivitis meaning swelling of the gums), the gum recessing so you can see more of the tooth than you should and tooth damage.
Most animals will allow this examination and it isn’t painful unless your pet has dental disease. Plaque, which is a film of bacteria on the teeth, is usually invisible and this builds up and hardens to create tartar.
Dental examinations help predict potential future problems. High levels of tartar and gum recession are a sign that structures below the gum may be damaged. Any damage may result in the tooth falling out or becoming infected without treatment.
Dental examinations alone don’t give the full picture. Vets are often unable to see the very back teeth and can’t assess any damage under the gum line. This requires a dental examination under general anaesthetic or “happy gas”.
What is a Dental?
Examinations under general anaesthetic can be more thorough. When your dog is anaesthetised your vet doesn’t have to worry about being bitten and your dog’s muscles are relaxed so their mouths can be held open to examine the very back molars. Your pet will be placed under light general anaesthesia so all of the teeth can be examined completely. All the gums are examined and the tonsils and area under the tongue is checked.
As the structures surrounding teeth become unhealthy a gap develops between the gum and the tooth. An indicator of the structures health is how deep this gap (or pocket) is. To measure this, a veterinarian or veterinary technician puts a probe into this gap to measure it; something which can’t easily be done whilst your pet is awake. If your vet has found deep pockets in the gum they may inject antibiotic gel into those pockets. This will kill any of the bacteria damaging to try and keep it healthier.
The side of the teeth closest to the tongue can also be examined in anesthetised animals to check for cavities, fractures, wear or decay. All of the teeth are cleaned when the pets are anesthetised and then each tooth and the surrounding gum is examined in turn it’s state is recorded on a chart. If there is damage to the tooth it may be extracted at that point.
Tooth extraction is often a big procedure potentially needing areas of bone surrounding the teeth to be removed with the tooth. To extract teeth local anaesthetic is injected into your pet’s gums to make them numb. This means they need to have less anaesthetic to keep them asleep and they aren’t in pain when they wake up.
For a few days after having a tooth removed your pet may still be sore and struggle eating. To help them you should provide them with wet food for up to a week. Your vet may have also prescribed anti-inflammatory pain killers and antibiotics for your pet. These should always be given as they will make sure they heal properly.
A Little Reminder
As you can see, removing teeth is a big task and can cause a lot of pain. The best way to prevent this is to look after your pet’s teeth by giving them the dry food, daily tooth brushing (if possible), using mouth washes/ gels and giving dogs dental chews. Sometimes the only way to know your pet has dental problems is to get your vet to look at them. Remember, February is dental month, what better time to get their teeth checked and start with those good habits?