Why Bad Breath Isn’t the Real Problem with Dental Disease – The Importance of Dentals

By Emily Hoppmann, DVM

Dental disease affects everyone – the two legged and the four legged creatures! As people, we have much more control over our dental health. We brush our teeth multiple times a day, floss daily, use oral rinses, and go to the dentist every 6 months for our bi- annual cleaning. Our pets however do not have the luxury of making sure they brush and floss daily! That is why pets as early as 6 months start to develop tartar and bacteria in their mouths, causing periodontal disease and horrible smelling breath. Periodontal disease is defined as inflammation of any of the tooth’s support structures (such as the bones and ligaments that hold the tooth in place) and gingivitis (which is swelling and redness of the tissue just above the tooth in the mouth). Smaller animals and dogs, cats, and ferrets that excessively groom or lick the carpet or suck on fabric tend to be at a higher risk than the large or giant breed dogs. However, how much mineral is produced in the pet’s saliva is genetic and the more mineral produced, the faster a pet or person gets dental disease and the horrible breath that comes with it.

The reason that an animal’s breath gets an offensive smell with oral disease is due to all the bacteria in the mouth that is contained in the plague. The minerals naturally occurring in the saliva, lead to plague build-up on the teeth and that thickens into calulus, which is rough and irritating to the delicate tissue above the tooth. The bacteria that lives in all that calculus does cause bad breath, but that obvious odor is the least of the problems in the overall picture of our animal’s health. When the gingiva gets compromised by the dental disease it allows all the bacteria in the calculus/tartar to enter the blood stream. Once the bacteria is in the blood stream there can be multiple organs affected if the dental disease is not taken care of on a routine basis. For example, the bacteria that started in the mouth can cause problems with the heart as it gathers on the valves of the heart over time. This causes a disease called endocarditis, which can lead to congestive heart failure, which is a fatal disease. The truth is that untreated dental disease can allow the bacteria in the bloodstream to gather anywhere in the body, such as in the liver or kidney, leading to infection and failure of organs and even death. Periodontal disease is also an important cause of insulin resistance so a thorough teeth cleaning is an important step for many diabetics early in the course of treatment.

Not to worry, this is one disease that is very easily controlled and treated. We do our part from day one to educate owners about dental disease and prevent it, since we do want to limit the number of dental cleanings a patient has in their lifetime since pets do have to be put under anesthesia for dentals. However, once a pet has signs of the disease, which tends to occur at 2 or 3 years of age, but can be seen as young as 6 months, the patient needs to start having regular dental cleanings. During the dental cleaning, I scale the teeth to remove any tartar on the teeth, even going underneath the gums to make sure to get all the tartar and bacteria. I check for any pockets around the teeth that may contain bacteria, make sure that there are no teeth with roots or nerve endings exposed causing pain or decaying teeth. I extract any teeth that I absolutely have to in order to stop the  pain or disease that the teeth are causing the pet.

Before a dental is needed and after a dental has been done, there are things we want to do to try to prolong the time before the first dental is needed and between them. These things include brushing your dog or cats’ teeth, doing pulse therapy antibiotics, providing treats that are specifically designed to fight the tartar and bacteria (like CET chews), and changing your pet’s food to a food specifically designed to not allow the tartar to build up at all (such as Science Diets T/D). None of this takes the place of a dental cleaning, it just helps with oral health. Just like us, sometimes a good dental cleaning is necessary for a pet’s health. Making sure to stay on top of dental care will help you to have a pet with pearly white teeth, no oral pain, no dangerous bacteria traveling through the bloodstream, and great breath!