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Dental disease in pets: more than just bad breath!

In this episode:

Pet Joke of the Week: The prophetic parrot
Personal comment: Dental disease: more than just bad breath!

Transcript of personal comment from this episode of The Web-DVM:

With national animal dental health month approaching in just over a week, I wanted to address a topic about which there is too little awareness about, and a topic that too many pet owners are dismissive of. All too often people simply think that their cat’s or dog’s bad breath is just a consequence of nature, that they are animals, and they are supposed to have stinky breath, end of story. What I want to tell you today is that dental disease in animals is very real, is capable of causing severe pain, suppressing the immune system and leading to overall poor health, can rot and dissolve jaw bone, and can lead to infections being seeded elsewhere in the body. I want to tell you that dental disease is far more than just bad breath!

Let us begin with the pain aspect. Anyone who has had a bad tooth ache knows the excruciating pain one bad tooth can cause. Now, imagine that instead of having just one bad tooth, your mouth looks like this (see image on video).

Most of us cannot fathom the kind of pain that teeth like this cause. But then, when I examine a mouth like this and tell the owner about the level of pain this is causing, they almost always tell me, “But he doesn’t act like he is in pain.” Folks, just as I do my clients, allow me to educate you on pain in animals. In the wild, they are programmed to not show signs of pain since, if they show any weakness, other wild animals will opportunistically bully them away from food, hunt their young, chase them out of their shelter, and generally take advantage of them. Even though our animals are domesticated, they still carry this tendency to hide their pain to the best of their ability, which can make them very cryptic about showing owners signs of pain, which is especially true in cats. And since they cannot speak to us and articulate the fact that something hurts, it often goes under our radar. But believe me when I tell you, this mouth HURTS!

Next, let us talk about suppressing the immune system. Pain leads to stress, which we know leads to immune system suppression in people, and that is no different in dogs and cats. The oral bacterial load associated with this level of tartar is severe, with virulent bacteria being swallowed constantly by patients that suffer with dental disease, keeping the immune system very busy, and subsequently weaker. As a result, patient’s with dental disease also commonly suffer from opportunistic infections of the skin, urinary tract, and ears.

While on the subject of bacteria, these pathogens that live in the mouth can also directly seed elsewhere in the body to end up infecting the heart and/or kidneys, leading to life threatening complications that are very difficult to treat.

Locally, I cannot tell you how many times I have seen pathological fractures of the jaw because tooth root infection has eroded bone, or this phenomena (see image on video) called an oronasal fistula, a tooth infection of the upper arcade of teeth that is so severe that it has eroded up into the nasal sinuses.

What is so upsetting about all this is that it is so preventable. All you have to do is take your pet to the vet regularly for its yearly visits, which include getting vaccines current, heartworm screening, stool analysis to check for parasites, all a good idea, but also a thorough examination which includes an inspection of the teeth. If your vet notices early stage dental disease and recommends a dental scale and polish based on that examination, don’t blow it off and make the appointment to get it done. Afterwards, if the vet recommends dental chews, feeding dry pet food, or other measures to keep your pets’ the teeth and gums healthy, take heed and do it. Maybe next year, your pet may not need dental work because of his recommendations.

So let’s go over some common reasons why owners decline dental cleanings, as I refute why most of these reasons are not justifiable. I already discussed that people simply dismiss dental health as unimportant, and am pretty confident we explained how wrong that is. So that brings me to the next most common reason: cost.

Not having the financial resources to have the work done is unfortunate, and I sympathize with anyone in this position. I would not recommend anyone put themselves or their family in financial jeopardy to having the pet’s teeth cleaned. But there are others that actually can afford the dental procedure, but money is still generally tight and they cannot justify the expense. I think some of these folks also tend to fall in the same category as the previous group we just discussed, that generally dismiss the importance of dental health. For these people, I will say this: an investment in a dental could potentially save you a great deal of money in the future. For treatment of secondary heart infection, kidney infection, pathological fracture of the jaw, oronasal fistula, and other health consequences of dental disease, cost a heck of a lot more to treat then that dental that would have prevented them. I cannot tell you how many clients have lived to regret declining my recommendations to have the teeth addressed, because of the financial ramifications that resulted in their non-action.

The final most common reason that pet owners decline dentistry is fear of the anesthesia required to perform the procedure. Sorry folks, our patients do not simply open up and say ah. Anesthesia is necessary to have the work done. And besides, if we have to extract teeth or perform deep root cleaning as we often do, they have to be under general anesthesia for that anyway.

My answer to this fear is that it is unwarranted for two important reasons. First, is that complications that arise from dental disease are statistically far more dangerous for the pet than anesthesia. With advances in anesthesia protocols and monitoring equipment that rival that of human medicine, the reality is that death from anesthesia is exceedingly rare, especially with all the precautions we take, starting with a pre-anesthetic exam and bloodwork.

So let us celebrate National Animal Dental Health month with some good common sense dental prevention, beginning with dry pet food, regular dental chews, and weekly tooth brushing (but I would reserve the tooth brushing only for pets that do not resent it too much – most cats will not be too amenable to it). Most importantly, if your vet recommends some cleaning and dental work, if it will not break you financially, by all means do it.

Thank you for watching, I will once again not be available for my live broadcast this Sunday evening, as my beloved NY Jets will be playing a monumentally important playoff game, but I plan to be back on with my live show next Sunday. As for this show, please join me next week, when I will be discussing domestic dogs vs. wolves, are they really as similar as many think, or are they very different separate and distinct species’.

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