February is National Pet Dental Health Month, a time when the veterinary community emphasizes the importance of oral health care for our pets. Why is this so important? By age three, approximately 80 percent of dogs and cats show signs of dental disease. With the majority of dental disease occurring under the gum line, a wide array of diseases and ailments could be affecting your pet.
The main culprit of poor dental health is oral bacteria, which cause accumulation of a sticky film called plaque on tooth surfaces. If not removed by regular brushing, plaque quickly mineralizes to form dental tartar, or calculus. Although tartar caked on your pet’s teeth is unsightly, bacteria that delve below the gum line cause the real damage. Gingivitis leads to inflammation of the periodontal structures—the tooth root, periodontal ligament, and surrounding bone—that hold each tooth tightly into the jaw bone. A progressive deterioration of the periodontal structures causes varying degrees of periodontal disease. When your veterinarian assesses your pet’s mouth, she will assign a grade to the level of damage present:
- Grade 0 — No plaque or gingivitis present
- Grade 1 — Some plaque and gingivitis present; can be reversed with routine annual anesthetic dental cleaning and home care, such as regular brushing
- Grade 2 — Gingivitis and mild tartar accumulation are visible; damage is reversible with professional dental cleaning to remove tartar
- Grade 3 — Heavy tartar, gingivitis, and bone loss are present; some teeth may be broken or fractured and pain is likely; professional dental cleaning is needed to clean tartar off of teeth and prevent further deterioration, but the damage that has been done cannot be reversed
- Grade 4 — Severe tartar and gum recession; teeth may be missing and/or broken beneath the layers of tartar accumulation; pain is present; professional dental cleaning is necessary to prevent further deterioration, but the damage that has been done cannot be reversed
Since advanced stages of periodontal disease are irreversible, prevention is key. Taking a proactive approach to prevent this disease from progressing can have a drastic impact on your pet’s overall health.
Other oral problems
In addition to checking for signs of periodontal disease, your veterinarian will thoroughly examine your pet’s mouth for a variety of potential oral problems:
- Stomatitis — Inflammation of the gums and oral tissue seen mainly in cats that leads to painful ulcers on the lips, gums, tongue, and throat
- Halitosis — Bad breath can be caused by gingivitis and periodontal disease
- Oral masses — Benign and malignant tumors can form in any part of the mouth; according to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, tumors of the oral cavity account for six percent of tumors in dogs and three to twelve percent in cats.
- Feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions (FORLs) — Erosive pits on the surface of teeth near or below the gum line in cats; FORLs are excruciatingly painful, especially if erosion extends deeper than the tooth enamel.
- Abscesses — Oral bacteria can fester below the surface, causing pockets of swollen tissue containing pus.
Beyond the mouth
Bacteria associated with advanced periodontal disease can enter the bloodstream, traveling throughout your pet’s body. The potential impact of this is significant, as circulating bacteria tends to target the heart, kidneys, and liver. Problems beyond the mouth may include:
- Kidney ailments — Circulating bacteria may cause permanent damage to the kidneys
- Liver problems — Bacteria in the bloodstream can lead to hepatitis and damage of liver tissue
- Sepsis — Oral bacteria can be a source of an infection of the blood
- Heart valve infections — As bacteria in the bloodstream flows through the heart, it can latch onto the heart valves, causing a plaque that interferes with valve function
- Osteomyelitis — If bone damage is present, circulating bacteria can establish an infection within the bone
- Diabetes mellitus — Presence of periodontal disease can lead to insulin resistance; pets diagnosed with diabetes have a weakened immune response, which predisposes them to a more severe progression of periodontal disease
Your pet’s dental health is a serious matter. If it has been longer than a year since your pet’s last dental exam, or if you have noticed signs of dental disease, don’t delay—see your veterinarian immediately to prevent progression of periodontal disease and possibly devastating consequences.
Questions about your pet’s dental health? Contact us today.