So, does anyone know what the #1 disease of dogs and cats is? Here are some hints. It is so pervasive that 80-90% of animals over age 4 suffer from some degree of it. It can vary in severity from mild to a more serious condition causing pain, discomfort and possibly involving other organ systems.
It is also one of the most overlooked conditions by pet owners and until recently many veterinarians. Know what it is yet? Answer: dental disease.
How does it start? Periodontal disease starts with oral bacteria adhering to the surface of a tooth and forming plaque, a slimy film which builds up and eventually mineralizes to form tartar.
Plaque starts on the surface of the tooth but eventually works its way between the tooth and the gum leading to inflammation of the gums called gingivitis. Mild gingivitis appears as a thin red line in the gum just above the tooth. Severe gingivitis is characterized by very red, swollen, thickened and painful gums. Gingivitis is reversible if treated early enough.
Left untreated, gingivitis will progress to periodontitis, which is the inflammation and destruction of the ligamentous and bony support tissues of the teeth. Periodontitis results in severe mouth pain, loose teeth and bacterial infection of the tooth socket. And once infection sets in, the animal’s breath will have a terrible odor to it.
The mouth is loaded with bacteria and as the gums become inflamed, the bacteria around the teeth are free to enter the blood stream and travel to other organs in the body. The heart is a frequent target of oral bacteria. The bacteria can colonize the valves in the heart making them leaky (which is heard as a heart murmur).
Small breed dogs seem to be more susceptible to developing more severe dental disease at an earlier age, while most larger breed dogs are more resistant. Cats infected with FIV ( Feline immunodeficiency virus) may have severe gingivitis.
So what is an owner to do? First of all, if your pet will allow it, take a look at its teeth. “Flip the Lip” and look for tartar build up, a thin red line just above the tooth, or red and puffy gums. Look for gum recession, bleeding, broken or chipped teeth and oral masses. Make sure you check the back teeth too. If you see any of the above your pet needs to be seen by your veterinarian for treatment.
Many owners are reluctant to have a dental cleaning in their pet because it requires the use of general anesthesia. Unlike us, dogs and cats won’t lay still to have their teeth cleaned, and if they bit down they could hurt someone or break a tooth on metal instruments. Almost always, the risk of dental disease far outweighs the risk of anesthesia.
Of course, certain precautions can minimize the risks of anesthesia before a dental cleaning. Pre-anesthesia lab work can identify liver or kidney problems. And using an IV catheter and fluids during the procedure helps to prevent hypotension (low blood pressure) from developing.
How often does an animal need to have its teeth cleaned? Ideally, animals should have their teeth cleaned yearly after they are 3 or 4 years old. Smaller breed dogs may need more frequent cleanings to keep their mouth healthy.
Owners can help maintain good oral hygiene brushing their pets teeth regularly with special toothpaste formulated for animals. Oral rinses, CET chews, Greenies and specialized tartar control foods can also help minimize plaque and tartar buildup.