Dental care of dogs and cats - Why? When? How?
Oral health is an important part of every animal’s comprehensive well-being. Dogs and cats use their teeth daily, so naturally, their teeth wear out. For the same reason, the owner should take good care of their pet’s teeth - the animal needs them every day. At worst, neglecting a pet’s dental care might result in severe pain and secondary ailments. In turn, proper dental care is likely to secure great oral health for the animal throughout its life.
The roots of the teeth are covered by gums. Small connective tissue fibers called periodontal ligaments attach the roots, holding the tooth in its place. Enamel is the outermost layer of the tooth, covering the entire crown on top of the gums. The tooth remaining under the gums is covered by dental cement. Under the enamel and dental cement is dentin, a bone-like matrix, composing the majority of the tooth. Pulp is the innermost part of the tooth, containing nerves and blood vessels.
A puppy develops 28 deciduous teeth (baby teeth), which eventually should be replaced with 42 permanent teeth. A kitten, on the other hand, develops 26 deciduous teeth and 30 permanent teeth. The last deciduous teeth should fall off when the animal is 6-7 months old. The development of the teeth should be monitored; if the deciduous teeth won’t fall off in time, they might cause malocclusion on the permanent teeth. In this case, a veterinarian should inspect and possibly remove the remaining deciduous teeth.
Gingivitis is an inflammatory reaction caused by the plaque antigen, affecting the gums surrounding the teeth. Plaque is composed of bacteria and their metabolites accumulating on the surface of the teeth. If regular teeth cleaning is not practiced, the amount of plaque increases. Plaque that remains on the tooth surface for a long time will harden due to the effect of minerals and turn into calculus (tartar). Calculus increases the risk of developing gingivitis.
The symptoms of gingivitis include red and swollen gums. Bleeding might occur when teeth or gumlines are brushed or handled. Halitosis (bad breath) is also a sign of gingivitis - a pet should not have a bad breath! An unpleasant, sustained odor in the mouth most often indicates a problem.
Gingivitis may heal with proper teeth brushing. If the brushing is found to be difficult or the symptoms won’t cease, the pet’s teeth should be examined and cleaned by a veterinarian. If left untreated, gingivitis may lead to periodontitis.
Periodontitis could be considered as a following, more severe form of gingivitis. In periodontitis, the inflammation is not only affecting the gums but the periodontal ligaments and the alveolar bone as well. Due to inflammation, the tissue surrounding and holding the tooth at its place will be damaged and degraded. Finally, the tooth will fall off. Periodontitis will not heal, but it can be prevented and the progress may be slowed down.
Periodontitis has similar signs to gingivitis; the gums are swollen and erythematous. Bleeding and touch sensitivity may occur. Periodontitis can be very painful and unpleasant to the pet. Excess salivation and drooling, decreased eating, or alternatively gobbling down food are signs that the animal tries to minimize the pain. If the pain is unilateral, the pet might chew its food using only the healthy side of its mouth. Some dog and cat breeds are more prone to develop periodontitis than others. Age, genes, stress, teeth density, the thickness of the alveolar bone, as well as previous diseases have also been proven to affect the development and severeness of periodontitis.
Periodontitis may predispose the pet to tooth resorption, in which the entire structure of the tooth starts to degrade. Every animal can develop tooth resorption, but it is more common in cats and aged individuals. The oral bacteria may spread from the inflamed gums to the circulation and damage other organs, such as kidneys and liver. Periodontitis has also been proven to increase the risk of endocarditis and cardiomyopathy.
Prevention of dental diseases
It is important that the owner frequently inspects their pet’s mouth. Additionally, it is recommended that a veterinarian examines and cleans the pet’s teeth on a regular basis, especially when the animal ages. With professional equipment, the cleaning is thorough and plaque can be removed from hard-to-reach places, such as periodontal pockets. When the teeth are examined regularly, the possible changes are noted faster and the treatment is often more simple. A veterinarian is also able to assist in situations where the pet won’t let the owner inspect its mouth. With some animals, the oral check-up is only possible under anesthesia.
The teeth of dogs and cats should be brushed every day. Brushing the teeth prevents the accumulation of plaque and decreases the risk of developing gingivitis. If the plaque has already hardened to calculus, it cannot be brushed away. Calculus has to be removed by a veterinarian, using an ultrasonic device while the pet is under general anesthesia. During the procedure, the animal’s teeth are examined and cleaned thoroughly. As some dental diseases are incurable, it is important to invest in preventive care.
Dental care at home
The oral health of the pet is secured by regular teeth brushing, chewing toys, as well as frequent examinations and teeth-cleaning at a veterinary clinic. Plaque preventing foods for dogs and cats are also available.
As some animals might get uncomfortable when touching or examining their mouth, it is recommended that the training starts while the animal is still young. Proper dental care should be practiced in senior pets as well - it is never too late to start brushing their teeth. Daily toothbrushing should be carried out using special toothpaste and toothbrush made for animals. You should not brush your pet’s teeth with toothpaste made for humans!
How to brush your pet's teeth:
1. Start the training by letting your pet taste the toothpaste; pets usually find it tasty. Continue with a slow phase and make sure that your pet is comfortable with you touching its mouth. Reward and praise the pet during the practice. On the first try, it is not necessary to set a goal of brushing the entire set of teeth. As the brushing becomes a daily routine, the animal will get used to someone touching its mouth, and the brushing becomes easier.
2. Brush the teeth by using small, rotary, back-and-forth movements. Start from the upper canines and move to the outer surface of the upper teeth. Pay attention especially to the gumlines, where the plaque tends to accumulate the most.
3. Continue with the outer surface of the lower teeth, using the same technique.
4. Move to the inner surface of the upper and lower teeth. Remember to brush thoroughly the molar teeth as well.
A. M. Reiter. (2014). Periodontal Disease in Small Animals. The Merck veterinary manual. Whitehouse Station, NJ :Merck & Co., Inc.
A. M. Reiter. (2014). Tooth Resorption in Small Animals. The Merck veterinary manual. Whitehouse Station, NJ :Merck & Co., Inc.
A. M. Reiter. (2018). Dental Disorders of Cats. The Merck veterinary manual. Whitehouse Station, NJ :Merck & Co., Inc.
A. M. Reiter. (2018). Dental Disorders of Dogs. The Merck veterinary manual. Whitehouse Station, NJ :Merck & Co., Inc.
L. T. Glickman, N. T. Glickman, G. E. Moore, G. S. Goldstein, and H. B. Lewis. (2009). Evaluation of the risk of endocarditis and other cardiovascular events on the basis of the severity of periodontal disease in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2009, 15;234(4):486-94. Available at: https://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.234.4.486