We all know the familiar discomfort of a toothache, or the dread of a visit to the dentist. But as much as we people need to be aware of staying on top of oral health and having a healthy oral hygiene routine, the same is true for our pets who are also at risk for periodontal disease. In fact, good oral hygiene in pets can help extend their lives.
What starts out as plaque or other mouth and teeth issues can get very serious, fast for dogs and cats. “Periodontal disease can begin in pets as early as 6 months of age and it is the inflammation of the gingiva and the surrounding structures of the teeth,” says Molly Farrell, DVM, owner of Dyer Animal Clinic in Indiana. Often, factors like plaque buildup on the teeth can make the disease worse.
First of all, don’t panic. Periodontal disease is a very common disease of the teeth and gums. By the age of 3, most pets have some degree of periodontal disease. Unfortunately, it's incurable, so the best measures are always preventive.
“Periodontal disease occurs when bacteria multiply in the area where the teeth and gums meet,” explains Dr. Jordan Turner, MRCVS, a veterinarian and founder of YourPetProfessional. These bacteria cause inflammation of the gums, and as this inflammation progresses, periodontal disease gets worse and worse.
"Periodontal disease occurs when bacteria multiply in the area where the teeth and gums meet... Over time, the bacteria form more and more plaque underneath the gums. The bacteria release toxins, which accelerate the process, the tooth loses more and more of its anchoring ligament and then falls out."
First, bacteria stick to the tooth. "Over time, these bacteria form together and make a hard substance called plaque. Gradually the bacteria cause the gums to shrink back, and the tooth's attachment to the jaw to loosen,” says Dr. Turner. “Over time, the bacteria form more and more plaque underneath the gums. The bacteria release toxins, which accelerate the process, the tooth loses more and more of its anchoring ligament and then falls out,” continues Dr. Turner.
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Periodontal disease can cause immense pain in your pet and lead to a serious infection. This infection can have tragic results. “If left untreated, the infection can spread to the heart, liver, and kidneys,” warns Dr. Farrell. Advanced periodontal disease is irreversible, so staying on top of your pet's preventive dental hygiene routine is incredibly important in making sure your pet lives a longer, healthier life.
"If left untreated, the infection can spread to the heart, liver, and kidneys." Advanced periodontal disease is irreversible, so staying on top of your pet's preventive dental hygiene routine is incredibly important in making sure your pet lives a longer, healthier life.
Once that periodontal infection from the mouth enters the blood, it will spread throughout the body. At this point, the liver and kidney will have trouble filtering out the toxins. The heart is at risk too. “As for the heart, if your pet has heart disease, the infection can cause endocarditis, which is the infection of the inside of the heart,” says Dr. Farrell. These infections can cause permanent as well as fatal damage to your pet's organs.
If your pet is diabetic, too, they are at risk. “The infection could cause issues with their diabetes and it could make it difficult to keep the diabetes under control,” explains Dr. Farrell.
As Dr. Jan Bellows tells petMD, "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."
In veterinary medicine, Periodontal disease is usually categorized into four grades:
Grade 1: “This is when there is inflammation of the gum tissue surrounding the teeth,” says Dr. Farrell.
Grade 2: “The pet will have inflammation of the gum tissue and bleeding gums. At this grade, 25% of tissue attachment to teeth is missing and causes losing of teeth,” continues Dr. Farrell.
Grade 3: “They will have inflamed and bleeding gums with pustular discharge due to the infection. The pet’s mouth will begin to smell rancid and there will be moderate bone loss with anywhere from 25 to 50% decrease of attachment,” says Dr. Farrell.
Grade 4: “Your pet will have the same symptoms as a Grade 3 including severe bone loss and tooth mobility. At this grade, there is a likelihood of 50% or more of the attachment loss,” explains Dr. Farrell.
You can also check out some more specific periodontal disease symptoms here.
Periodontal therapy should be the ultimate goal for all pet owners to control the plaque buildup, according to experts. “You will have to be willing to work with your pet every day and your pet will have to be the willing participant,” says Dr. Farrell.
Of course, everyone is busy and this won’t be easy, but it’s important. “We recommend that at your pet’s yearly veterinary exam, ask your veterinarian about your pet’s oral health,” says Dr. Farrell.
Depending on your pet’s cooperation, the veterinarian should be able to give you an idea on the status of your pet’s oral health. “I do have to say that it is not until your pet is under anesthesia that the doctor can get a better assessment on your pet’s oral health,” adds Dr. Farrell.
Schedule your pet for their first cleaning with the understanding that the grade of your pet’s periodontal disease can change. “A Grade 1 and 2 would be a professional cleaning, which includes scaling, irrigation, polishing, and a fluoride application,” says Dr. Farrell. However for a Grade 3, the veterinarian will perform the same procedures as a Grade 1 and 2 procedure, but there is a high probability of teeth removal. Once the doctors begin removing teeth, this becomes oral surgery.
At Grade 4, the doctor will be removing teeth along with the same procedures of the scaling, irrigation, polishing, and fluoride of the remaining teeth. “If your pet had any one of the four procedures done or you are starting today, it is the ultimate goal to prevent plaque buildup from reoccurring,” says Dr. Farrell.
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At home, you can brush your pet’s teeth using veterinary approved toothpaste. “Do not use the same toothpaste that is meant for human usage because it could contain the ingredient, xylitol which is deadly for pets,” warns Dr. Farrell.
This will be challenging at first with your pet, but with continued practice, your pet will get used to the procedure. Ask your veterinarian what the proper method is for brushing your pet’s teeth.
“Do not feed your dog canned or soft food because it causes plaque buildup on the teeth,” and remember to give dental treats, such as Greenies to your pets. “These treats help break down the plaque on the teeth.” When purchasing pet food, look for specific brands of food that help with tartar control.
“Do not feed your dog canned or soft food because it causes plaque buildup on the teeth,” says Dr. Farrell, and remember to give dental treats, such as Greenies to your pets. “These treats help break down the plaque on the teeth,” explains Dr. Farrell. Finally, when purchasing pet food, look for specific brands of food that help with tartar control.