As veterinarians, we encourage pet owners to make a conscious effort to properly care for your pets’ teeth. You might think that wolves and wild dogs don’t need to brush their teeth, so why should your domestic dog? But wild canines do experience dental issues and also don’t live as long in the wild as your furry friend will in your lounge. It’s also not just an old-dog or old-cat affliction: 80% of dogs will experience some form of gingivitis or periodontal disease before the age of two; the same is true for up to 70% of cats. The culprit is the bacteria in your pet’s mouth, which results in inflammation in the gums, destruction of tissue and even tooth and bone loss if you don’t put in the daily effort of caring for their dental health.

This article covers the basics of what canine and feline periodontal disease is, why it’s such a dangerous condition for pets to have, how it’s diagnosed and treated, and what you can do for your pets to keep periodontal disease at bay.

The causes of periodontal disease in pets

Consider what might happen if you never brushed and flossed your teeth, only ate crunchy foods and ‘cleaned’ your teeth by chewing gum. That’s the equivalent of how many pet owners expect their pets to live, day to day. However, our pets’ dental care should be a top priority, especially when considering the negative effects that periodontal disease can have on their health. If you’re not getting rid of the oral bacteria in your pet’s mouth daily, it adheres to the teeth surface and creates dental plaque. If the bacteria and subsequent plaque are not removed, it solidifies into tartar, which is the hard yellow-brown substance on pets’ teeth. This tartar hardens above and below the gumline and irritates the gums, causing an inflammatory response and resulting in gingivitis. If the gingivitis is not addressed and treated, it will eventually lead to the tissue damage, infection and tooth loss that characterises periodontal disease.

It progresses by the formation of periodontal pockets below the gumline – gaps between the teeth and gums that trap food debris and more bacteria, worsening the infection and inflammation. Periodontal pockets are not usually visible, but the signs of advanced periodontitis include red, bleeding gums and bad breath. If the vet were to investigate below the gumline (with the dog or cat under anaesthetic), they would likely find deep periodontal pockets that indicate advanced gum disease. At this stage, the animal would also have signs of tissue damage and potential bone loss. This would make eating very painful, with some pets showing signs like a refusal to eat, or turning their heads while chewing gingerly. They would also be reluctant to play with chew toys that they had previously enjoyed.

Periodontal disease becomes very dangerous when the infection gets into their bloodstream and oral bacteria is circulated through their body. It can travel through their blood and into major organs like the heart, liver and kidneys, affecting their functioning and having a detrimental impact on their overall health. It’s an unfortunate (yet preventable) reality that pets with periodontal disease don’t live as long as pets with good dental health.

Symptoms of periodontal disease in pets

Depending on how far periodontal disease has progressed, varying degrees of different symptoms may be present. These include:

  • bad breath (halitosis)
  • gum inflammation (gingivitis)
  • visible tartar on the teeth
  • bleeding gums/blood in the saliva
  • receding gums, which indicate a loss of supportive structure around the teeth
  • loose teeth/tooth loss
  • reluctance to engage with chew toys
  • excessive salivation
  • a change in eating behaviours
  • lack of appetite
  • unable to tolerate teeth being brushed
  • pawing at the face/mouth

As a survival throwback from their wild days, pets have a tendency to hide their pain or illness. This is especially true for cats who are natural predators, as they would become prey if they were sick or injured. Dogs would become ostracised from the group, as a wild pack cannot afford to be weakened by injury or illness. By the time your pet shows any signs of being in pain, it means they have been sick for a long time, so don’t wait for symptoms of pain to show. Take them to the vet if you notice their breath is bad or their gums are inflamed.

How pet dental disease is diagnosed

The veterinarian will perform an oral examination of your pet’s mouth and take note of any symptoms that indicate infection or inflammation. The only way for the vet to do a thorough examination, however, is if your pet is placed under anaesthetic and each tooth can be closely inspected. It will also give the vet the opportunity to explore below the gumline, empty the periodontal pockets by cleaning out debris, bacteria and pus, and determine the extent of the disease.

If your pet’s health appears to be compromised by periodontal disease, the vet will perform blood tests and take X-rays to determine how far the dental disease has progressed from a local to a systemic problem. Taking all of this into account, the vet will be able to come up with a treatment plan to improve your pet’s health as far as possible.

Treatment for dental disease

When the vet places the dog or cat under anaesthetic to examine their teeth and gums, they will use the same opportunity to treat any infection, remove compromised teeth and remove all remaining tartar by scaling the teeth. The vet will polish the newly-cleaned teeth and provide pain medication and antibiotics to treat infection.

The vet will suggest ways to keep your pet’s teeth clean and to improve their health with an effective dental cleaning regimen. This will help to prevent periodontal disease from recurring. It’s important – especially if your pet has already had periodontal disease – to bring your pet in for an annual vet visit to have their teeth inspected and cleaned if necessary.

Prevent periodontal disease in your pets

Taking care of your pets’ dental health requires a multi-modal approach:

High-quality pet nutrition

There is no better foundation for good health than high-quality pet nutrition that meets your pet’s individual needs. This will give them a strong immune system, which can help to fight off bacteria and illness. However, good nutrition must go hand-in-hand with a regular dental health routine that ensures your pet’s teeth are kept clean. Small breed dogs and those with short snouts (brachycephalic), as well as purebred cats, are susceptible to periodontal disease because of crowded dentition and other genetic issues. They would do well on a dental diet, which gives them the right protein and mineral profile, and crunchy kibble that is designed to mechanically clean their teeth.

A daily oral health care routine

If plaque is not removed, pets can easily develop gingivitis, but it must not be allowed to develop into periodontal disease, which can happen rapidly without proper care. It is critical that pet parents take a preventative approach to their pets’ oral health: familiarise your puppy or kitten with toothbrushing and the use of dental gels, water additives and oral sprays as soon as possible after their permanent teeth have erupted.

A dental routine can also be initiated with adult pets: give them dental treats and praise before and after brushing their teeth, which will help them to accept this new routine. Even if they don’t enjoy it initially, step-by-step progression – first with a bit of pet toothpaste on your finger, then gradually introducing a soft pet toothbrush – can get your pet to successfully accept toothbrushing and a daily dental regimen.

If you need help with brushing your pet’s teeth, ask the vet for their recommendation for the best dental health products for your pet’s unique requirements.

Dental chews and toys

Do dental chews really help to keep pets’ teeth clean? Yes, but only if they are used as part of a whole dental health routine. Chews alone will not keep gingivitis at bay. Dental chews and dental toys are specially designed to rub or scrape off dental plaques. Good quality dental chews also contain ingredients that control your pet’s oral bacteria and keep their breath fresh. But if your pet refuses to have their teeth brushed, don’t think you’re off the hook: a 2019 clinical study proved that toothbrushing was three times more effective in keeping pets’ teeth clean than simply feeding them a dental diet with dental chews as a supplement.

If you struggle with brushing your pet’s teeth, ask the vet to show you how and to recommend a more effective technique in helping your pet to accept it.

Annual vet check-ups and dental cleaning

Periodontal disease is a very serious condition that no pet should have to suffer with. If you bring your pet in for an annual check-up, the vet will be able to assess the state of their dental health and recommend the correct course of action. With a physical examination, the vet will determine if your pet has an effective daily dental routine, or if they need to undergo a scaling and polishing treatment under anaesthetic.

Prevention is better than cure, so don’t wait until there’s an obvious problem in your pet’s mouth. Bring them in for an annual check-up and take the right course of action to preserve their health so they get to enjoy a long and healthy life with you!

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