(Editor’s note: Dr. Patricia Arrington is one of only 15 veterinarians and animal-related professionals in the United States certified in the new field of Veterinary Family Practice. Her posts in a question-and answer-format are drawn from frequent client questions.)
By Dr. Patricia Kennedy Arrington, Jefferson Animal Hospital and Regional Emergency Center
Q: My vet keeps telling me to brush my pet’s teeth. I just don’t have time, and my pet just doesn’t like his mouth handled.
What do you suggest? And is this crucial to pet health?
Dr. Arrington: The health of your pet’s teeth affects their entire body health.
So, yes, we do tell our clients to brush their pet’s teeth. But there are several ways to do that without having to actually use a pet toothbrush, which we understand is difficult to do with many pets.
There are several pet foods that have dental care crystals that will actually clean the teeth for you. TD (Tartar Control Diet) by Hill’s Science Diet is one of the leaders, and we encourage use daily as a few kibbles in the food bowl or as the complete food choice.
Also, Iams diets and Royal Canin have excellent dental factors in their food to help keep your pet’s teeth clean. There are lots of treats and toys that help keep teeth tartar free. Your vet can help you with choices that work for you.
When you decide on a choice of dental care for your pet, it’s best to start oral care at a very young age to get your pet accustomed to having a toothbrush in its mouth or a soft cloth.
But it’s never too late to start.
Routinely handle your pet’s muzzle and put your hands in their mouth. Do this, while talking calmly to your pet, making your pet as comfortable as possible. Ideally, brushing your pet’s teeth daily or using a soft cloth to massage the teeth and gumline is best.
However, we understand that this isn’t always practical. So one to three times per week is what we strive for. Do NOT use regular toothpaste! Fluoride, when swallowed by your pet, can be extremely toxic.
Vets carry a variety of flavored toothpastes that are safe and taste good to your pet. A pediatric toothbrush will work well for larger animals. Cats and smaller dogs may do better with a finger brush, which vets also have available for purchase. A wet washrag can work well too if your pet just won’t tolerate brushing.
All pets should visit their veterinarian at least once per year for a thorough dental exam and professional cleaning under general anesthesia if necessary. Older patients may need to be examined twice a year if underlying oral disease already exists.
Teeth are graded according to severity of Tartar, gingivitis and gum erosion.
Grade of Zero is pure white puppy teeth, and you should start preventative measures at this point. Grade of One has some early accumulation of plaque. Don’t let your pet’s teeth get any worse than Grade One!
This is already beyond the point when you seriously need to consider strong measures to prevent further damage.
Dental Grade of Two or Three may have already started bone loss, which can cause loss of teeth. Your pet is already having some tooth pain at Dental Grade Two or Three. Dental Grade of Four, and your pet is in trouble and needs extractions or root canal therapy.
Teeth (human and animal) are all made of the same substance. Imagine going 10 years to 15 years and never brushing your teeth! This would cause the following: foul breath (have you smelled your pet’s breath lately?) , bacterial Infection (gets in the blood stream and causes kidney and heart disease), gingivitis (see those swollen gums?) , bone loss that causes tooth loss, abscessed teeth , plaque/calculus build-up ,bleeding gums, infection in the bloodstream , and disease of the major organs. In pets, we see a direct correlation between dental disease and diabetes, kidney disease and other life threatening diseases, especially in cats.
What if your pet has a dental score greater than Two? Then you need a Dental Prophy, which is a procedure requiring general anesthesia to scale the teeth and under the gum line just like you have done to your teeth at your dentist. And X-rays are necessary to check the tooth roots for disease and bone loss.
With pets, it can only be done properly with safe general anesthesia.
Always request a written estimate for your dental procedure. This will ensure that you understand all of the itemizations and the prices before the procedure is performed. When it is determined that your pet requires a dental cleaning under an anesthetic, blood screening should be performed prior to the cleaning procedure to ensure that your pet can tolerate the anesthesia safely.
While under anesthesia, respiratory and cardiac monitors should be utilized on your pet to ensure the safest anesthetic procedure possible. Dental X-rays are taken while your pet is under anesthesia to ensure teeth are in good health below the gum line.
Fractured or infected teeth below the gum line and bone loss can only be seen with dental X-ray. Once your pet has been placed under anesthesia and dental X-rays have been taken, then it can be determined if extractions or other oral surgery will be necessary. Many times a loose tooth can obviously need extraction. Many teeth look normal visually but have painful damaged root tips due to bone loss, which cannot be evaluated without dental X-rays.
After these procedures have been performed, the teeth are cleaned with an ultrasonic scaler, polished with a fluoride paste and then treated with a sealant to prevent tarter from sticking to the newly cleaned surface of the teeth.
Your pet is then recovered and given pain medications to assist them with any discomfort they may be feeling. While it is very important to perform these dental procedures on pets with dental disease, prevention is less expensive and much safer.
Once your pet’s teeth have been cleaned, it is more important than ever to utilize diets that have dental care crystals, toys and treats specifically designed to keep teeth clean, brushing your pet’s teeth and having a dental exam twice yearly by your veterinarian.
About Dr. Arrington: Dr. Patricia Kennedy Arrington has been practicing in Kentucky for 41 years and owns/manages Jefferson Animal Hospital and Regional Emergency Center in Louisville and Jefferson Animal Hospital Fern Creek. Dr. Kennedy Arrington was recently selected Veterinarian of the Year by the Kentucky Veterinary Medical Association (KVMA), is Certified in Veterinary Family Practice, has been honored by the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) as Woman Business Owner of the Year and by the Better Business Bureau with the Torch Award in Business Ethics. Dr. Kennedy has been married to Rick Arrington, her business partner, for 34 years . They have one son, Adam.