Let's talk dental health! How often should your pet's teeth be professionally cleaned? Is there anything that you can do at home to help slow the build-up of plaque and tartar? And what can you do about bad breath?!
Dental hygiene is important not only for the gums and teeth and underlying bone, but also for the whole body. Bacteria in the mouth create a plaque that covers the surface of the teeth. This plaque starts to build up again within several hours after the teeth have been cleaned. This is true in people too, and it is the reason that dentists recommend brushing your teeth twice daily. But brushing your pets’ teeth twice daily?! In an ideal world, that would be lovely, and it would go a long way towards reducing bad breath and keeping the teeth pearly white. Nevertheless, we need to balance idealism with realism. Few pets will tolerate twice daily tooth brushings and few pet owners have time to fit this into their schedules. But don't despair! There are many products that can help kill mouth bacteria and slow the build-up of plaque. These products come in many forms, including enzymatic water additives and dental chews. Call your veterinary hospital to discuss options that might work well for you and your pet.
Even with these products, many pets often need a professional comprehensive oral health assessment and treatment (COHAT) several times throughout their life. Eventually, the plaque lays a foundation for tartar to cement to the teeth. This rough and porous tartar harbors bacteria that contributes to bad breath and allows infection to set in along the gum line and at the roots of the teeth. An infection at the root of the tooth can cause significant local damage, including deterioration of the surrounding jawbone or a very painful tooth root abscess (trapped pocket of pus). The infection often leads to weakening of the structures that hold the tooth in its socket, and the tooth becomes loose. Wiggly teeth are ineffective, irritating, and often painful for pets, and they need to be removed.
Because pets don't do a great job of sitting in a dental chair and saying "Ahhhhh", the COHAT exams need to be performed under general anesthesia (drug-controlled unconsciousness that prevents movement and blocks the perception of pain). This allows for a thorough exam of the whole oral cavity as well as humane treatment of any identified problems. Once the pet is sleeping under anesthesia, the assessment portion of the COHAT begins with dental radiographs (x-rays) of all the tooth roots. Dental radiographs give valuable information about the portion of the teeth and bony anchor that cannot be seen by the naked eye. The gum lines are probed to search for any problem spots, and the mouth is assessed for oral masses and broken teeth. During the treatment phase of the COHAT, the teeth are cleaned with an ultrasonic scaler which safely and effectively removes the cemented tartar. The teeth are then polished with a paste that helps delay the build-up of plaque on the teeth. If any problems were identified during the assessment portion of the exam, these teeth are extracted (removed) after the surrounding nerves are numbed. Some extractions may only need leverage and traction to be removed, while others may require the aid of a dental drill. If there is a large socket after a tooth is removed, the overlying gum is sutured together over the socket to prevent food and debris from getting stuck in it while the mouth is healing. If teeth are removed, the pet is sent home with a medication to reduce pain and inflammation and may also be prescribed an antibiotic to prevent infection.
COHATs are important for a healthy mouth, but they also contribute to a healthy body by reducing the amount of bacteria that enter the blood stream through the gums and circulate through the rest of the body. Different pets will need COHATs at varying frequencies. Some factors that contribute to this are species (cat vs dog), breed, mouth size, and genetics. As part of your pet's annual wellness exam, the mouth is inspected and a COHAT may be recommended depending on the amount of dental disease that can be seen. Appropriately timed COHATs increase the comfort, health, and longevity of your pet. If you have questions about this, we encourage you to speak with your veterinarian about when your pet would benefit from a COHAT.