Even my family wrinkles up their noses when I tell them that one of my interests in veterinary medicine is dentistry, and some days I get that. If anyone would have told me when I started vet school that I wouldn’t be a specialist surgeon, or an oncologist; that I would be excited to clean and treat pets mouths, I would have thought they were crazy, too. Most veterinarians do not grow up with the dream to spend their day cleaning tartar, extracting teeth, and doing root canals. Even poor Herbie the elf (remember Rudolf the Rednose Reindeer’s friend?) was exiled to the Island of Misfit Toys when he wanted to be a dentist!
So what is it about this topic that keeps me interested? As veterinary medicine evolves, we strive to try to prevent diseases before they have a chance to take hold. So why wouldn’t we care just as much about the oral cavity as anywhere else? The statistics are staggering: Over 85% of our pets over the age of 4 have some form of periodontal disease. Would we care even more about this disease-because it truly is a disease-when we know that the bacteria from plaque and tartar shower our pets systems daily, getting into their blood stream and causing heart disease, kidney disease, overall inflammation, and most of all pain? Would we care more if we knew that good oral care may help our pets live up to five years longer? We should care. Our pets want us to care.
Those who know me know I love my stories. Back in the day when I hated dentistry (yes I did hate dentistry, because I wasn’t trained, and did not feel empowered and did not believe in its importance in our pets health), I met adorable eight-year-old long-haired dachshund at her semi-annual exam. We recommended a dental cleaning with possible extractions based on moderate dental tartar and gingivitis. During the course of her cleaning and radiographs we found eight teeth that needed to be extracted and three that fell out as we were cleaning. She had severe periodontal disease (inflammation around her tooth sockets), to which some breeds are prone. At her two-week recheck we discussed her progress. Her owners were tearing up and I braced myself for another issue with the little sweetie. No, they said, they just felt so very guilty. Apparently she was a puppy again-playing with her toys, running around the yard, and just back to her old ways, and they blamed themselves for waiting too long. She felt better because of the removal of the source of pain, inflammation, and infection-those rotten teeth. It of course was not her family’s fault. We all need to be more educated on how we can help our pets. I was hooked.
Most of our pets start with halitosis, or bad breath, in the early stages. There is no shame in admitting that many of us do not brush our pet’s teeth daily. Even humans who do brush twice daily need cleanings with sub-gingival scaling and polishing at least once yearly. With our pets, cleanings allow us to get a full oral exam accomplished. We check every tooth surface, probe, and polish every tooth. Full mouth radiographs are essential, as over 50 percent of the oral disease is under the gum line. Most pets will need multiple dental cleanings in their lifetime-some preventative and some to address issues as they arise.
As dental disease progresses, we notice the gingival tissue pulling away from the tooth, and tartar building up. What we cannot see is the pus and infection between that tartar and the gum. That infection slowly erodes and eats its way upward to the ligament that holds the tooth in place. And all the while our pets are happily eating, playing with toys, and just being themselves. But there is no secret now that this causes pain. Like a popcorn kernel stuck between the tooth and the gum, it’s a source of discomfort. Our pets deserve better, and we can give them that easily.
In the end stages of dental disease, the tooth loosens and infection reaches the root. At this point every time pressure is applied to the tooth it hurts. Abscesses may form at the tip of the root, way below the gum line. If the infection has no where to go, it may erode up through the soft tissue and come out elsewhere like the cheek, behind the eye etc. At the same time, the gums bleed and all the pus and infection reaches the blood stream, where it circulates, reaching the heart, kidneys, etc. Severe infections can cause life threatening heart and kidney disease. We as veterinarians hate this stage, because its our turn to feel guilty, we should have stopped this long before it became this severe.
In the end we are all to blame. We can and should be more proactive in the dental care of our pets, especially now we know what is at stake. We need to all work together to change the paradigm of looking the other way, and understand this is an essential part of our pet’s preventative health. We owe it to our four legged friends who cannot speak for themselves.
At the Broad Ripple Animal Clinic and Wellness Center, our veterinarians check your pet’s teeth as part of their semi-annual exam to monitor their dental health. If you would like to schedule an appointment to have your cat or dog’s teeth examined, give us a call at (317) 257-5334.