February was National Heart Disease Awareness Month. Though it has passed, it’s good for dog and cat caretakers to promote the best health for their pets' hearts throughout the year by making a concerted daily effort to improve overall health. This includes focusing on healthy weight management and periodontal disease reduction.
The mouth is one of the primary places pet owners can directly contribute to positive changes that benefit the entire body. Periodontal disease is a preventable condition that has negative and potentially life-threatening consequences for pets.
I recently attended the Western Veterinary Conference (a.k.a. "vets gone wild") in Las Vegas, NV, and eagerly took part in several lectures that were given by dental specialists. I was intrigued by Dr. Curt Coffman’s report on the emerging data confirming the serious negative health implications for pets' internal organ systems as a result of the movement of oral cavity bacteria from the mouth into the bloodstream. According to Coffman, "Dogs and cats having periodontal disease are more likely to have histopathologic changes in the heart, kidney, and liver."
How are these changes determined? Via post-mortem examination, which is done by a veterinary pathologist after a pet’s death.
Evidently, periodontal disease "can shorten a pet’s life by affecting vital organ systems." This news is not surprising. Periodontal disease’s effects as it pertains to humans is well known, and having some concrete stats as it pertains to dogs will benefit veterinarians’ attempts to convey the importance of regular dental health treatments to clients. (See National Center for Biotechnology’s Information study.)
How does periodontal health apply to the heart? Let’s start with the prolific growth of bacteria within the moist, dark, nutrient rich resources inside the mouth. Through inflamed gums, oral cavity bacteria move into the blood stream and accumulate within in the heart. This causes damage to the cellular layer (endocardium) that lines the chambers of the atria and ventricles, and to the contracting heart tissue on which the body relies for blood circulation. Bacteria accumulate on the heart valves, leading to valvular thickening when exposure to bacteria becomes chronic.
Thickened valves are less able to open and close, so blood flows less efficiently through the heart. This results in a heart murmur, which is audible when your veterinarian ascults (listens to) the heart during a physical examination.
Heart murmurs are graded on a scale of one to six, with one being the quietest/mildest and six being the loudest/most severe. As the grade increases, there is a subsequent decrease in the heart’s functional capacity. The compromised heart is required to work harder to meet the body’s demands for blood flow and oxygen, so heart failure ultimately ensues.
If your dog or cat was heart murmur-free during its juvenile years and develops one during adulthood or during its geriatric life stage in the presence of periodontal disease, then it can be deduced that lack of appropriate dental care is one of the contributing causes. Wouldn’t you feel regretful that you didn't make more of an effort to maintain your pet’s healthier mouth on a day-to-day basis?
As indicated in my previous Daily Vet post, Top Three Tips for Pet Dental Care from a Veterinary Dental Specialist, there are many reasonable means by which pet owners can provide dental care for their pets. The best option is anesthetic dental, which provides the safest and most thorough diagnostic evaluation (X-rays, etc.) and treatment options (subgingival scaling, extraction, etc.). Once the baseline of a healthy mouth has been established, daily home dental care can ensure its ongoing health.
Reduction of oral cavity bacteria is vitally important, as excessive stimulation of the immune system can occur and leave the body susceptible to other infectious organisms, or unable to adequately manage stress and inflammation. A hyperimmune response (like my dog Cardiff’s Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anemia) can be triggered from chronic exposure to the mouth’s bacteria.
All pet owners must recognize that only a few minutes per day spent addressing the periodontal health of their dogs and cats can have a profound impact on health.
Set your calendar to send a daily phone message or e-mail reminder to brush your pet’s teeth once a day. Schedule to do so around the time you floss, rinse, and brush your own teeth. The average person brushes their teeth twice daily; therefore two (or more) opportunities exist to do so for your pet.
Make consistent home based periodontal care, along with regular veterinary evaluation of your pet’s mouth the regular tools used to maintain a healthy and normally functioning heart throughout your pet’s lifetime.
Dr. Patrick Mahaney