Dentistry 101 For Dogs and Cats
We all know how important dental care is for ourselves and our families. I get a dental cleaning every 6 months. I make sure my kids get their teeth cleaned and examined every 6 months. Now, consider our pets – how important is dental care for them?
Dogs and cats are mammals, just like we are, and they are susceptible to the same dental diseases: tartar and calculus build-up, gingivitis, cavities, gum recession, tooth root abscesses, and tooth fractures are all too common in our pets. Today, let’s talk about why it’s important to prioritize your pet’s dental health, and what you can do both at home and with your veterinarian to help keep them healthy.
**As always, please discuss with your veterinarian prior to making any changes or starting a new oral health routine for your pet!**
WHY IS DENTAL CARE IMPORTANT?
The eyes may be the window to the soul, but the mouth is the window to the entire body. This is a major point of entry for bacteria, both into the GI tract and into the bloodstream. When dental disease develops, your pet is at higher risk for inflammation of the gums and infection both inside the mouth and throughout the body, including the liver, kidneys, and heart. Keeping a clean, healthy mouth goes a long way to improving your pet’s overall health.
WHAT CAN I DO AT HOME?
There are some great steps you can take at home to reduce the build-up of plaque and tartar as well as prolong the time between dental procedures for your pet. Brushing your dog or cat’s teeth often – ideally once daily – is far and away the BEST thing you can do for their oral health. “Every day? That seems like a lot!” you might say. Think of it this way – how often do YOU brush your teeth? (Hint: I hope it’s at least once a day!)
To successfully start brushing your dog or cat’s teeth, you’ll need some supplies. You’ll need a toothbrush and toothpaste specifically formulated for dogs and cats. Human toothpastes should NEVER be used for furry friends, as they often contain ingredients that are toxic to dogs and cats. When in doubt, visit the Veterinary Oral Health Council website – this is a reputable source for veterinary dental products, including toothpastes and dental chews, that have been shown to be safe and effective for pets.
Now that you’ve got your supplies, get your pet used to the new routine. Remember this: you’ll get there faster if you start off slower. That means don’t try to brush on Day 1. Instead, start by putting toothpaste on the toothbrush and allowing your pet to investigate, maybe even lick it off. Do this 1-2 times daily for 1-2 weeks. Next try gently touching the toothbrush and toothpaste to their tooth, and allow them to lick the toothpaste from their teeth. Again, do this for 1-2 weeks until they’re comfortable. Then you can try to progress with gentle brush strokes and eventually a full-mouth brushing. For more tips, visit this Veterinary Partner article.
VETERINARY DENTISTRY: WHAT IS CONSIDERED THE “STANDARD OF CARE”?
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), and the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC) are all very highly-regarded organizations within the Veterinary field. They both agree that “General anesthesia with intubation is necessary to properly assess and treat the companion animal dental patient.” Full-mouth dental radiographs (X-rays of all the teeth and tooth roots) are also widely considered to be part of the standard of care. As much as 40% of dental problems are discovered above the gumline, where only x-rays can find them. If your dog or cat isn’t getting x-rays during their dental procedure, there’s a lot that can go undiscovered and untreated.
For my clients AND my own pets, I only recommend getting veterinary dental care with an experienced DVM who provides general anesthesia, intubation, AND full-mouth x-rays with every procedure. I want to make sure all the issues are being properly diagnosed and addressed as efficiently as possible.
WHAT ABOUT ANESTHESIA-FREE DENTISTRY FOR PETS?
You may have heard about this from a groomer, boarding facility, or even your vet’s office. I need to warn you, though, that this is a hot-button issue in the veterinary field. The practice of anesthesia-free dentistry by anyone other than a licensed DVM is even illegal in some states, such as California, because it’s considered practicing veterinary medicine without a license. So please do some research on what is allowed in your state.
So, why is anesthesia-free dentistry so controversial? Simply put, it’s a cosmetic-only procedure whose benefits don’t last long and whose risks of pain, injury, and anxiety far outweigh the benefits. Imagine your dog or cat being physically restrained while someone uses a dental scaler (the very sharp, pokey metal hook used to scrape tartar from our teeth) to chip away at the hard tartar on their teeth. Their mouth has to be open wide and very still to avoid accidental injury. Pets often struggle – they are understandably anxious or fearful. This means they need to be restrained even more firmly. Even then, a small head movement can mean a painful injury to the gums and/or teeth. What’s more disheartening is the realization that most of the serious dental disease is hidden underneath the gumline, which cannot be seen or treated unless your pet is under anesthesia. This means all the effort, fear, anxiety, and money that goes into an anesthesia-free scaling will not be able to diagnose or treat the true dental problems that your pet may be experiencing.
- Cost: Veterinary care costs, just like human healthcare costs, are rising. If you feel you can’t afford a high-quality veterinary dental procedure right now, know that you are not alone! This is where an honest discussion with your veterinarian can really help – they can help you come up with a timeline that works for you and your pet, depending on your pet’s severity of dental disease and your financial situation. Perhaps you decide together that a dental procedure can wait 2-3 months until you’re able to save up the funds. Or perhaps you can apply for Care Credit or a similar service to help you afford the care your pet needs now. It is often best to save up for a high-quality veterinary dental care procedure that follows the medical standard of care rather than cut costs by risking lower-quality care. However, that is a decision best made in conjunction with YOUR veterinarian.
- Risks of anesthesia: Any anesthetic procedure is a risk, that’s absolutely true, and it should never be taken lightly. Good anesthetic protocols with intubation, IV fluid support, and trained support staff to monitor the patient can help lower the risks. Pre-anesthetic blood tests are also important to identify any liver or kidney issues that might impact the anesthetic plan (e.g., altered dosing or choice of anesthetic medications). **Please always seek dental care with an experienced, licensed veterinarian. For complicated cases, geriatric patients, or those with underlying medical conditions, you may want to consider a board-certified Veterinary Dentist.**
- Tooth extraction: Many pet owners are worried their dog or cat won’t be able to eat comfortably if they have multiple teeth extracted. Rest assured that most of the time, the opposite is actually true! If a tooth is so diseased that it needs to be extracted, it was already causing pain and discomfort to the pet; removing the source of pain and infection usually leads to the pet eating more easily once their extraction sites have healed.
In summary, dental care is very important for your beloved cat or dog. You can go a long way toward improving or maintaining their oral health by routinely brushing their teeth at home. When dental cleanings or other procedures are needed, seeking care with an experienced veterinarian who provides high-quality dental care (anesthesia, intubation, full-mouth x-rays) is well worth your time and money.
Until next time, keep smiling!