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By T. J. Dunn, Jr., DVM
It’s a fact. Most dog owners never take a good look inside their dog’s mouth. And that’s unfortunate because it is estimated that over 80 percent have significant oral pathology. Every day veterinarians are presented with patients for routine vaccinations or other minor afflictions whose oral health status is truly cause for alarm. Upon displaying the dog’s loose teeth, sore and infected gums, and rotting tooth sockets to the dog’s owner, the response usually is one of surprise and shock.
"Well, she does seem to have bad breath, Doctor" is the usual reply. "But I’m sure at her age she can’t have anything done now." My response is that the continual presence of bacteria and their associated toxins have a daily impact on the dog’s health; anything we can do to change that for the better is appropriate. Privately I’m thinking "How would you like that pathology going on in your mouth?"
Partly because the mouth is warm, moist and has significant nutrients present for organisms to grow on, the oral cavity of dogs is a perfect incubator for all kinds of bacteria. Most are normal and natural, but once plaque and calculus (tartar) form on the teeth the normal microbial flora gets out of balance — and if pathogenic organisms proliferate, trouble ensues.
Far too often veterinarians discover during the physical exam that their canine subject has a foul odor to the breath as a result of generalized periodontitis. But foul breath is a mere shadow of a much more insidious disease process.
To help understand the topic of oral hygiene let’s take a look at a few basic definitions below:
Adverse Effects of Poor Oral Hygiene
I asked a Diplomate of the American Veterinary Dental College, Jan Bellows DVM, of Hometown Animal Hospital and Dental Clinic in Weston, Florida, about the adverse health impact chronic periodontal disease can have on a dog. This is what he had to say, "The toxins from periodontal disease are absorbed into the dog's blood stream. As the kidneys, liver, and brain filter the blood, small infections occur causing permanent and at times fatal organ damage. After periodontal disease is treated, and the owners give proper home care, most dogs respond wonderfully due to the decreased pain and infection."
The adverse effects of periodontal disease are due in part, as Dr. Bellows states, to the toxins the bacteria secrete and the damage these toxins cause to delicate kidney, cardiac, and brain tissue. In addition, many veterinarians believe that actual bacterial colonies can spread via the circulation and set up housekeeping within the animal’s tissues, commonly in the heart valve areas, kidneys and liver. Far better than extracting teeth, performing gingival flaps, filling erosions or doing root canal procedures, would be to prevent the health damaging periodontal disease in the first place.
Since most dogs presented with advanced periodontitis are older canines, owner concern regarding the safety of dental procedures always seems to be an impediment to performing dental procedures, especially since anesthesia is an important aspect of a thorough dental cleaning.
"Age," as Dr. Jones said, "is not a disease, and senior citizen dogs that are otherwise healthy are generally able to tolerate anesthesia for an elective procedure. Even though anesthesia safety will continue to improve, there will never be a time when there is no risk. The question is really whether the level of risk is appropriately measured against the damage to the dog’s quality of life if it does not have a dental procedure."
Dr. Jones also points out that in modern veterinary practices the anesthetics utilized are markedly safer than those used 15 or 20 years ago and patient monitoring during anesthesia has become quite sophisticated. The use of intravenous fluids during the procedure, warmed surgical surfaces to keep the patient’s body temperature stable, and preanesthetic blood chemistry evaluation all improve the opportunity for the patient to benefit from the dental procedure.
One of the best ways to insure optimum oral health is to provide the dog with a well-balanced, meat-based dog food. Meat assists in keeping the mouth environment healthy. Actively encouraging the dog to utilize chew treats that require some "exercising" of the teeth, such as is provided by compressed rawhide chewies, hard rubber or nylon chew toys, can assist in keeping the mouth structures vital. Brushing the dog’s teeth can be a big help, too, but needs to be done almost daily.
One study in the Journal of Veterinary Dentistry, December, 1996, reported "Tooth-brushing every other day did not maintain clinically healthy gingiva in dogs. The daily addition of a dental hygiene chew to a regimen of tooth brushing every other day reduced the gingivitis scores and reduced the accumulation of dental deposits (plaque, calculus and stain). Daily tooth-brushing should be the recommendation to the dog owner irrespective of dietary regimen."
Newer dental care products that include antiseptic impregnated chewies, canine appropriate tooth brushes, and even flavored tooth pastes to "reward" the dog for allowing the brushing, are available online and in pet supply stores or veterinary hospitals. Also important are routine oral hygiene visits where under light anesthesia the patient can undergo ultrasonic teeth cleaning, close inspection of teeth and gingiva, and assessment of overall oral health.
Addressing problems when they are minor and preventing the health damaging effects of bacterial contamination and systemic toxin release are immeasurably beneficial to the dog’s long-term health status.
The increase in number of Specialists in Veterinary Dentistry such as Dr. Bellows attests to the fact that we dog owners need to pay closer attention to our dog’s oral health status. And that begins with the simple task of looking closely at the dog’s mouth.
Dr. Bellows neatly sums up the need for optimum oral health throughout a dog’s life by telling me this, "When a client asks me how long their puppy will live, I usually respond 15-17 years if you brush their teeth daily … 11-13 years if you don't."
If that doesn't convince you, I don't know what will.
Image: Regan Walsh / via Flickr