February is Pet Dental Health Month, and I’m taking advantage of the discount offered at a local veterinary clinic to get my dog Apollo’s teeth cleaned. He is a boxer with one of the worst underbites you’ll ever see. Because his teeth don’t meet up the way they should, tartar builds up faster than it would otherwise and “stuff” (that’s the technical term) tends to accumulate between his teeth, which leads to gingivitis (gum inflammation).

I’m not as diligent as I should be about brushing his teeth. If did it every day, I might have been able to delay the need for a dental prophylaxis a little longer, but since I’m a slacker, it’s off to the clinic we go.

You might be wondering why I don’t just clean his teeth myself. Well, that’s one of the few downsides of working in a house call veterinary practice. Whenever one of my own pets needs a procedure that requires general anesthesia (which a thorough dental cleaning does), I’m "demoted" from attending veterinarian to owner.

I’m not be able to treat Apollo’s dental disease, and to be honest I can’t accurately diagnose it either since doing so requires that I measure the depth of the pockets surrounding all of his teeth and perhaps take dental radiographs (X-rays). Apollo is a great dog but he certainly wouldn’t sit still for these procedures, which will be performed by "his" veterinarian (it hurts to write that) after he is anesthetized and his teeth are cleaned by a well-trained technician.

I can make an educated guess as to what’s going on inside his mouth, though. Here is how periodontal disease is classified in veterinary medicine:

Stage 1: mild inflammation or redness of the gums with no abnormal periodontal pockets. A routine dental prophylaxis will reverse dental disease at this point.

Stage 2: periodontal pockets have developed (in other words the gums have pulled away from the teeth a bit) but the surrounding bone is still normal. Cleaning out the pockets and treating them with products that promote gum reattachment is necessary.

Stage 3: periodontal pockets are deeper than 5 mm, which indicates bone loss is occurring. Tooth extraction or surgery to lift up a flap of gum, thoroughly clean the affected bone, and other treatments to promote healing will be required.

Stage 4: bone loss of 50% or more is evident. Affected teeth have to be extracted.

Check out the disgusting picture of Stage 4 periodontal disease available on the American Veterinary Dental College’s website. I feel I must state that this is NOT what Apollo’s teeth look like!

I’m guessing that Apollo will be diagnosed with stage 1 periodontal disease, though I’m concerned that the area between his first upper incisors (between his front teeth) might be at stage 2. A defect has developed behind these teeth that is becoming increasingly difficult to clean out with a toothbrush or floss. (Yes, I’ve tried flossing my dog’s teeth … but only this one spot!) I’ll let you know how the cleaning went in a couple of weeks.

February is typically a slow month in the veterinary world, so it’s a good time for clinics to offer a discount to encourage owners to book dental cleanings. But, if you’ve missed Pet Dental Health Month and your pet’s mouth needs attention, don’t wait another year to schedule a cleaning … things are only going to get worse in there in the meantime.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: ncn18 / via Shutterstock