Signs of Dental Pain in Pets
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
Dental disease is a major issue in our pets with most pets having some degree of dental disease by the age of three (smaller dogs tend to develop dental disease earlier in life and often have more serious dental issues). The fact that dental disease is so common makes total sense since unlike humans, pets do not brush their teeth multiple times a day or visit the dentist for a professional cleaning twice a year. Dental disease has been linked to heart disease, liver disease, diabetes and many other serious, even life-threatening, illnesses so oral health is about much more than just a pearly white smile! Consider the fact that our pets can’t tell us when they are suffering from dental pain, it is important to have bi-annual examinations by your veterinarian who can observe changes in the mouth (which allows them to recommend the appropriate treatment plan) and also know the signs to watch for at home that may indicate there is an issue.
One big issue is that animals hide illness so well that they may be suffering from serious dental issues, but show no signs at all. Dogs, cats and other companion animals, such as our exotic pets, rarely show signs of dental pain until the disease has become extreme and we certainly do not want our babies to be suffering in silence! Not showing pain is a survival mechanism, an instinctual behavior that our domesticated animals have in common with their wild ancestors, but unfortunately it results in our pets suffering needlessly. This is another reason it is so important to have bi-annual examinations with your veterinarian, so that disease can be caught and treated or managed as early as possible. Some of our exotic pets (such as rabbits, chinchillas, and guinea pigs), have open-rooted teeth that grow daily throughout their life so being sure that they are on the correct diet that will allow their teeth to wear down correctly and having the mouth examined at least every six months is even more critical. Exotics tend to hide disease even more so than dogs and cats since they were prey species in the wild. Overgrowth of their teeth can result in painful ulcerations in the mouth and even entrap the tongue to the point they are unable to eat at all.
Many pet owners recognize that their pet has halitosis, or bad breath, but do not realize that it is a sign of a much more serious underlying health issue. The foul odor is a byproduct of the bacterial metabolic process occurring in a pets’ mouth and that bacteria not only causes dental disease, but is also able to enter the blood stream and result in disease in other areas of the body. In pets with periodontal disease, there is more bacteria in the mouth than there should be and so the odor increases, as does the risk of disease secondary to the bacteria. Bad breath should not simply be attributed to “Doggy breath” or “Tuna breath” – foul breath is never normal and needs to be evaluated by a veterinarian so that an individualized plan to treat and manage the disease can be made and carried out.
Some pets may have some abnormal or altered behaviors that are clues to something not being quite right in their mouths. Some of these signs include chewing on one side of the mouth, dropping food, running away from the food dish or not eating as well as usual, crying when yawning, hiding, not grooming themselves and acting “grumpy”. You may also notice excess salivation or increased pawing at the mouth or rubbing the mouth on objects (such as the couch, ground, etc.). Since many of our pets are excellent groomers, be sure to check the fur on the front paws for signs of moisture or a change in color (similar to a rust color) that indicates that they are using their paws to clean up any evidence of excess saliva or discharge from the mouth. As an owner you know your pet better than anyone so if you notice anything that resembles these or any other abnormal behaviors, call and schedule an appointment with your veterinarian right away. Always trust your gut – you are the voice for your furry friends!
Another sign to watch for is any bleeding from the mouth. Bleeding from the mouth is usually due to periodontal disease, but it could also be evidence of fractured teeth, lacerations or ulcers on the tongue or gum tissue or the presence of an oral mass. Watch for thick, ropey saliva, spots of blood found on toys or beds or drops of blood in the water or food dish. If the periodontal disease is severe enough, you may notice bleeding from the nose or a bloody discharge when your pet sneezes. Early signs of dental disease include inflamed gums which become much more fragile and more likely to bleed and once the gums are compromised, the risk that the bacterium in the mouth poses to the rest of the body increase tremendously. The goal is to recognize dental disease early and be able to address it before it progresses to an even more serious issues.
Regular professional veterinary dental cleaning and polishing is recommended to keep the mouth in tip-top shape, but there are also recommendations that your veterinarian can make to help keep the amount of dental disease to a minimum. These include certain treats or chews that have enzymes to help to break down tartar, special prescription diets that are formulated to improve dental health, and individualized antibiotic therapy that targets the mouth. Often times owners do not realize how much dental disease is affecting their pet until after a veterinary team addresses the pet’s oral issues and the pet immediately starts to act more youthful and lively. We are here to help keep your pet in the best health possible and that includes paying close attention to what is going on in the mouth – another reason we are sure to examine every patient from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail at every visit!