We're all reminded from an early age that too much sugar and junk food will rot our teeth. I'm certain there are very few people out there who enjoy going to the dentist too! However, what about our pets? While we're unlikely to be indulging our pets with fizzy drinks and chocolate, we still need to think about their dental hygiene and where necessary, taking to them to the dentist.
As we enter the festive season, with lots of treats around, we thought it would be an opportunity to put together some thoughts on how to look after your pet's teeth.
Human teeth are very different to animals'. Carnivores need teeth for catching and slicing, whereas omnivores need large flat grinding teeth. In humans, a typical adult human has 20 baby teeth and 32 permanent adult teeth. Incisors, canines, premolars and molars all have a different role to play when we eat.
Dogs are actually a bit similar to humans in having two sets of teeth with the second being permanent. Dogs have 28 baby teeth and 42 permanent teeth. A permanent tooth cannot regrow if removed. They also have flattish molars.
Cats on the other hand have only sharp teeth in their mouth and whilst they also have two sets, the molars only come out once they are between 5 and 6 months of age.
Pets get gum disease in the same way that humans do, with bacteria and trapped food particles collecting along the gum line and forming plaque. If this plaque is not removed (and yes, only mechanical abrasion works here so regular teeth cleaning is key), minerals in the saliva then combine with the plaque and form tartar (or calculus), which is firmly attached to the tooth.
This tartar then causes local irritation resulting in gum inflammation (gingivitis). Unfortunately prior to gingivitis, the owner will see absolutely nothing. If the calculus is not then removed (and the only way to do this is to give a general anaesthetic to your pet), then the calculus begins to actually separate the gum from the teeth, allowing even more bacteria to enter! This is called periodontal disease.
It can be extremely painful to your pet at this point but owners may not even notice this pain as animals will often mask pain in order not to appear weak. They also learn to eat with the non-painful part of their mouth if possible. Pets can get bad breath, so at this stage, you may be able to smell their bad breath from across the room.
The biggest issue actually is not necessarily the pain that this causes but more the fact that this allows bacteria to enter the bloodstream that could end up causing direct infection of the heart valves, or disease of the kidneys and liver.
Root canals are commonly performed on our pets to save discoloured, fractured or abscessed teeth. The alternative is full extraction. Some breeds of dogs are also more prone to periodontal disease due to misalignment of their upper and lower jaws and include (but certainly not exclusive to) the toy poodle, Yorkshire Terrier, Pomeranian, Cavalier King Charles, Papillion and Dachshund .
Other clinical signs that may accompany periodontal disease are increased drooling (may be blood stained), pawing at the mouth, loss of appetite, nasal discharge (if extreme), loose or missing teeth or typically increased sensitivity around the mouth.
Luckily periodontal disease is preventable (as in humans) and ideally involves daily brushing (or at least twice weekly) using a specific dog/cat toothbrush and toothpaste (available in chicken, seafood or even malt flavours). Do not ever use human toothpaste as this contains fluoride which is toxic to pets.
You can also use mouth rinses that target plaque bacteria on a weekly basis. There are dental diets and dental sticks that contribute to mechanical abrasion and hence keep plaque and tartar formation to a minimum.
Costs do vary according to breed, age and level of periodontal disease present. Average cost for a 'scale and polish' which for some dogs may need to be done once to twice yearly ranges, from £150-£350 including a general anaesthetic. The large majority of pet insurance providers do NOT cover preventative health care (i.e.: a scale and polish) but will cover it if the teeth were damaged in an accident.
The main message for pet owners is that the best (and cheapest) method to avoid these high costs is to brush their teeth and/or use appropriate diet/treats.
Also, even though the pet needs to have a general anaesthetic for any dental procedure, in the vast majority of cases the benefits far outweigh the risks associated with an anaesthetic.