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What's Stopping You From Improving Your Pet's Dental Health?

Veterinary Technician doing an oral exam

I am sure it sounds like a broken record at this time of year when social media feeds are inundated with post from your veterinary hospital about pet dental care. But, to be fair, each February IS observed as National Pet Dental Health month by the veterinary profession and a quick review of published data continues to show that most pets do not receive any sort of professional dental cleaning on a regular basis. We have covered what happens during a dental cleaning previously, so, if you will indulge me, let’s look at some of the reasons that pet owners avoid this often-needed service.

As background, it’s important to understand that the prevalence of dental disease in our pets is very high. Most reports show that 80-85% of all pets have some level of dental disease by the time they hit age three. If you have a small or toy breed dog, most recent studies are showing incidence of dental disease as early as 1 year of age and 30% of those pups will actually have bone loss apparent in the jaw. Overall, other than obesity, dental disease is the most common diagnosis in our adult pets.

We also know that dental disease has implications far beyond the mouth itself. Sure, bad breath and cruddy looking teeth are just two easily recognizable issues, but did you know that there is a probable link between periodontal disease and heart problems? This is true for both humans and pets. As the bacteria in the mouth gain access to the bloodstream because of gingivitis and periodontitis, the germs will travel to the heart and start an inflammatory process there. This can lead to coronary artery disease or higher risk of strokes. The evidence is not 100% linked, but the bacteria causing issues in our mouth can be found in coronary blood vessels. In addition, c-reactive proteins (CRPs) are increased in people with gum disease and the level of these proteins are used to assess risk for heart attacks. It’s unlikely that your pet will suffer from a cardiac event, but chronic inflammation can lead to valvular disease which manifest as heart murmurs. Kidney disease is another possible result of poor oral health.

So, again, knowing these facts, what keeps people from taking their pets for regular dental check-ups and cleanings? In my mind, the bottom line comes down to a lack of knowledge, a fear of anesthesia, or not understanding the value of the service.

Severe tartar on canine carnassial tooth

Let’s look at the knowledge aspect...your social media feeds will be full of pictures of diseased dog and cat teeth (like the next few I have posted her) over the next month or so as veterinarians remind us about the dangers of dental disease. Still, some pet owners don’t fully comprehend the risks. Some people believe it’s normal for pets to have bad breath. Others might claim that “wild animals don’t brush their teeth, why should I worry about this in my pet?” Still others will reason that the pet’s diet (dry kibble or raw food with bones) keeps the pet from developing any dental issue.

Severe dental disease in a dog

Bad breath is NOT normal…technically called halitosis, this odor emanates from the film of bacteria, food particles, saliva and cells that live under the protection of the tartar on the tooth’s surface. This film is called plaque and can cause significant damage under the gumline and to the

tooth’s supporting structure. While it is true that we rarely see a fox, wolf or tiger with a toothbrush, we do see many of these magnificent animals with dental disease or even fractured teeth. Given that the lifespan of canines and felines in the wild is usually shorter than that of our pets, I don’t feel that avoiding dental care for our furry friends because it doesn’t happen in nature is a valid argument.

Should you give that dog this bone?

And, addressing the choice of diet argument…yes, mechanical scrubbing of the teeth that occurs when cleaning meat from a bone is beneficial, giving bones just for the sake of it is more likely to cause fractured teeth, intestinal obstructions or even hambones getting caught over the lower jaw! Dry diets certainly minimize food accumulation and retention on the teeth, but most kibble simply shatters when the pet chews (or IF they chew!). Look for specific dental diets to assist in scrubbing the teeth.

Moving on, many pet owners have a concern with anesthesia and this is their reason for avoiding the dental cleanings. It’s important to understand that a complete dental cleaning can NOT happen without general anesthesia. In coming weeks, we will review why the non-anesthetic dental cleaning fad is a bad idea for you and your pet. Today, suffice it to say that most pets do not like anyone poking around their mouth while they are awake, and this means that your veterinarian can’t do a full assessment of dental health. Another thing to keep in mind is that dental radiographs (x-rays) absolutely can’t be done on an awake animal! 60% of the tooth lies under the gumline and if x-rays aren’t taken, the dental assessment is not really complete! If this doesn’t convince you, maybe understanding that sensors for dental radiographs cost your veterinarian more than $2,000 and any pet, even your tiny Yorkie, can generate enough bite force to severely damage the device!

Finally, many clients point to the cost of a dental cleaning as the main reason for declining their veterinarian’s recommendation. On the surface, it is true that the cost for cleaning Fido’s teeth appears to be more than cleaning your teeth, but it’s important to remember a couple of things. First, as noted above, anesthesia is a MUST for a proper dental cleaning. Anything less than general anesthesia will not allow for a thorough assessment and cleaning. This is so important that the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) has released a standard mandating that their accredited hospitals use endotracheal tubes and general anesthesia on ANY dental procedure!

Pet under anesthesia, veterinary technician preparing to do dental x-rays

Next, a good majority of human dental patients have some sort of insurance to help offset the cost of preventive dental care and this is much more rare in veterinary medicine. So, between the need for anesthesia and the out of pocket expense, there is a perception of high cost for our pet’s teeth cleaning. But, when you look at the technician time (similar to your dental hygienist), the doctor’s time (just like your dentist), the dental x-rays, anesthesia, cleaning, polishing, fluoride treatment, possible barrier sealant bonding, and charting/assessment, an hour-long dental cleaning might cost between $250 to $400 depending on your area of the country. But, when you compare the health benefits to this price, I am sure you can see that preventive dentistry is truly a good value. In fact, it might even help add years to your pet’s life.

Later this month, we will dive into the scam of non-anesthetic dental cleanings and then provide some guidance to the wide range of dental home care products for pets.

Now that you know more, what questions do you have about your pet’s dental health?

1 Comment

Julie Osborne
Julie Osborne
Jan 08, 2019

Tom, this is awesome information, as usual! Noah's did an incredible job on Toto's tiny teeth and I'm trying to brush each week. Wish me luck!

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