Maintaining proper dental health is an important aspect of assuring your dog’s overall well-being. As our dentists have been telling us for decades, it is difficult to stay healthy if our teeth are not.
Symptoms of dental disease include bad breath (halitosis), gingivitis (inflammation of gums), build up of dental tartar, and gingival recession/root exposure. Eventually, most patients will manifest some degree of pain: pawing at the face, vigorous wiping of the muzzle, scratching the bottom of jaw or base of ears, head shaking. You may notice unwillingness to play with certain chew toys, loss of interest in chewing food, dropping food shortly after picking it up, or aggression when attempting a mouth exam. In advanced dental disease, or periodontitis, teeth can become infected (abscessed) and/or loose. As any other type of pain or infection, dental disease creates a significant source of inflammation which can lead to irritability, loss of stamina (exhaustion), and disruption of normal digestion. Dogs with chronic periodontitis will often have poor appetite or refuse to eat at all. Many experience heartburn or GERD symptoms such as heaving/retching, vomiting, and pica (eating grass or other nonfood items). Some exhibit loose stools, and progressive decrease in skin health, leading to dryness/dandruff, excess shedding, and itchy feet.
There are multiple ways to prevent dental disease. The most obvious one is adopting our own dental care technique of tooth brushing. You can use a soft toothbrush or rough cloth (gauze, terry cloth, cotton) to wipe plaque and food residue off your dog’s teeth before bedtime. Enzymatic toothpaste and gels/rinses help soften dental tartar and make it easier to brush it off. You can also encourage chewing of whole, nonstarchy foods such as apples, carrots, celery, or broccoli stems after meals to stimulate salivation and help wash the mouth. Most dogs who do well on raw foods will enjoy grinding their teeth on meaty bones or tough fibrous organs such as beef tendons, beef heart, poultry gizzards, and tripe. Other toys which can help engage your dog’s teeth include antlers/hooves, Greenies, and other similar dental snacks, dental ropes, and rawhide. The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC.org) has come up with a list of foods, treats, and washes that may help improve overall dental health.
As bodily organs, teeth have minimal regenerative ability. Once damaged, they often become infected and require serious medical attention. In cases of mild to moderate periodontal disease and tartar build up, you could consider a non-anesthetic dental scaling, if your dog will allow it. Some dogs need antibiotic therapy/infection management or pain medication beforehand to allow tooth scaling while awake. Significant gingivitis and root exposure often make it too stressful to perform cleaning without general anesthesia. Anesthetic dental cleaning allows for a thorough oral exam, measurement of gingival/periodontal pockets, identifying damaged or infected teeth (by visual inspection or using dental X-rays), and extraction of teeth that have been damaged beyond repair. As sad as it is to loose teeth, living with diseased or infected ones makes it difficult to maintain a healthy body and can lead to serious complications such as heart, liver and kidney disease, chronic digestive upset, immune exhaustion, and cancer.
Periodontal disease is not a fun subject, but it should be an integral part of any veterinary examination. I often find dental disease to be a hidden trigger for more obvious presenting problems such as ear and eye infections, hot spots on head and neck, and digestive upset. Please consult with your veterinarian if you’d like to become more proactive at preventing dental problems or have concerns about the state of your dog’s dental health.
Adam Piaseczny, D.V.M, leads the team of Healthy Pets Veterinary Hospital, SFHealthyPets.com, a four-doctor integrative practice in the West Portal neighborhood of San Francisco. He lives in adjacent Sunnyside with his partner, daughter Sofia, two dogs (Ricky and J.J.), and two cats (Chica and Chala). He is a graduate of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, class of 2000, and he received acupuncture certification from Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 2006.
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Main article photo by: Photo by Milante-Dimarik