Dear Dr. Dog: I haven’t been very pro-active in taking care of my four-year-old dog’s teeth. How important is this to her overall health and what do I need to do to prevent problems?
Kudos to you for being concerned about your dog’s dental health! This is one of the most important aspects of caring for the overall health of any dog or cat (or human). At the risk of overusing a cliché, the mouth is truly the gateway to the body. Everything that is eaten and virtually all the air that is breathed goes in through this route.
In the most fundamental ways, dental care in our pets is the same as it is for you and me. Oral bacteria and salivary proteins — which stick to the teeth and constitute what is referred to as “plaque”— don’t know or care whether they are in a dog’s or cat’s or human’s mouth: it’s essentially the same plaque layer.
So long as plaque is present on the teeth, minerals from the saliva will get deposited into it. As minerals collect within the plaque, it begins to harden and is referred to as “tartar.” At first, the tartar layer is only as thick as the plaque layer was to begin with. But, of course, plaque continues forming on the surface of the tartar, which then hardens into an even thicker layer that continues to build up. Over time, a dog’s teeth can start to look pretty, well, not pretty.
As tartar continues to accumulate, and bacteria harbored within it remain in constant contact with the edge of gums and also begin building up beneath the edge of gum where they are in contact with the jaw bone. This causes thegums to become infected and begin detaching from the side of the tooth, exposing the underlying jawbone and tooth roots to infection. This, in short, describes the progression of periodontal disease (PD), and PD eventually results in pain and tooth loss, as well as more serious long-term risks involving bacteria in the infected gums entering the bloodstream and spreading to other vital organs.
So, is oral health important in dogs? Absolutely. This is as central a part of preventive health care as giving him vaccinations or taking his once-a-month heartworm preventative tablet.
There are several things to keep in mind:
- First, learn the simple task of brushing your pet’s teeth. For a description of how to do this easily in dogs, visit http://webvets.com/PDFs/Mouth_Hygene_going_to_the_dogs.pdf.
- Second, I strongly suggest feeding a tartar control food like Prescription Diet t/d or Science Diet Oral Health. These especially hard foods clean the teeth better than regular hard food. And according to at least one study, Prescription Diet t/d resulted in 75% less tartar accumulation over time. This is what I feed my own dog. (In the interest of full disclosure: I have no personal investment in this dog food company, though our office carries this food, as do most veterinary offices.)
- Third, give your dog plenty of veterinary-approved dental chew toys. There are even rawhide chews for dogs that are impregnated with Chlorhexidine. Chlorhexidine is a fantastic antiseptic that is found in some human mouth rinses. The Chlorhexiden helps reduce bacterial numbers in the mouth, and because bacteria are part of the initial plaque layer that accumulates on the teeth, keeping the number of bacteria down helps prevent plaque from forming in the first place, and thereby helps prevent the whole series of events that ultimately leads to PD.
- Finally, whenever your pet is under anesthesia for any reason, ask your veterinarian if a teeth cleaning can be done at the same time. This is the ideal opportunity to have a gentle, yet thorough, cleaning performed on all surfaces of the teeth, including below the gum line where PD occurs. It also gives your veterinarian the chance to polish the enamel after cleaning so it is as smooth as possible, making it difficult for plaque to adhere in the future.
Remember: without a healthy mouth – “the gateway to the body” – your dog can never be completely healthy.
Dr. Franklin Utchen has been practicing veterinary medicine in San Ramon since 1989 and currently co-owns Bishop Ranch Veterinary Center & Urgent Care. His special interests include Orthopedic and Soft Tissue Surgery, Internal Medicine, Emergency/Critical Care, Dentistry, and Anesthesiology/Pain Management. Wish questions or comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org.