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[ tooth brushing ]
Tooth brushing controls plaque accumulation

Advice on dental care for pets

Routine home dental care

Dogs and cats accumulate plaque on their teeth within hours of them being cleaned. The bacteria in plaque produce enzymes and toxins which damage the gums and promote inflammation, leading to gingivitis. Over a period of time the inflammation and degeneration spread to the tooth attachment tissues causing periodontal disease. This is the commonest cause of tooth loss in animals, the same as it is in people. Bacterial acids are also responsible for causing caries cavities, an increasingly common problem in pet dogs, rabbits and rodents. Intake of unsuitable foods, ie. those containing refined sugars and/or processed starchy ingredients, provides the bacteria with ideal conditions for rapid growth and acceleration of the disease processes. An additional factor commonly increasing the severity of disease is hair impaction around the teeth.

[ periodontal disease ]  
Periodontal disease affecting premolars (left) and incisors (right)

Initialy, plaque is colourless and almost transparent making it difficult to detect. Using a disclosing solution or food dye helps identify where plaque is forming. With time and exposure to natural pigments from food the plaque deposits may become stained. This becomes more obvious once some of the plaque has died and become mineralised forming unsightly calculus. The rough surface of calculus encourages further plaque buildup. If left uncontrolled, gum disease will inevitably progress, though this may be a slow insideous process. Infection and bacterial toxins enter and spread through the body, increasing the risk of serious heart, liver and kidney problems.

[ plaque ] [ disclosed ]
Before and after applying disclosing solution

Periodontal disease, and many other tooth problems can easily be prevented by instituting an oral hygiene program. A combination of a suitable coarse fibrous diet which does not contain refined or unnatural ingredients, the regular provision of safe, non-abrasive chews and toys, plus toothbrushing will maintain teeth and gums in a healthy condition. The daily use of a correctly designed soft bristled toothbrush and a pet toothpaste is the only proven method for truly effective long term plaque control.

Brushing is the most effective method of plaque control

Remember that time and patience will be required when introducing toothcare to your pets. The outer surfaces of the teeth accumulate more deposits than the insides so, in dogs, start by holding the mouth closed and carefully inserting a soft bristhed brush inside the cheek and brushing the side teeth. Use a circular movement with the bristles angled into the crevice between the gums and teeth. In cats, start by using a dry soft bristled toothbrush to brush the side of their face. Many cats will then push against the brush so some of the bristhes go into their mouth. It is then possible to introduce a circling motion so that the bristles work against the teeth.

In a healthy mouth it just takes a few seconds top and bottom each side to loosen plaque. Once this is done the front teeth need similar attention. When you become proficient and your pet is accustomed to toothbrushing the insides of the teeth should also be cleaned.

Regular dental checkups by your vet, at least every six months, are advised so that home care can be assessed and any problems can be detected. These should be dealt with as early as possible because few animals show dramatic signs of pain, despite having severe toothache.

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Professional Periodontal Therapy

Occasional professional periodontal assessment and debridement, ie. probing, tooth scaling and polishing may be required even when regular oral hygiene measures are in use.

Periodontal assessment and therapy

Whilst power scalers are generally used for cleaning teeth, manual scaling (below) is preferable in some cases and is required to access narrow gaps and grooves. When subgingival debridement is required, hand curettes are used to minimise soft tissue damage.

[ handscaling ]

For the patient's safety and comfort, general anaesthesia is required so that deposits can be removed from the tooth surfaces, both above and more importantly BELOW the gum margin. The cleaning techniques used include ultrasonic or sonic scaling with power instruments, and/or the use of hand scalers and curettes (as illustrated above). Whichever method is used the teeth then need to be polished and any subgingival pockets flushed clean.

Depending on the level of deposits and number of teeth, the whole procedure may take from 20 minutes to 4 hours to complete (and 4 hours may not be enough time to get the teeth spotlessly clean). This is not a procedure to be rushed, and it is a waste of time if not done thoroughly. Also, unless thorough homecare measures are performed on a daily basis treatment will need repeating at very frequent intervals.

With a little help all pets should have sweet smelling breath and a full set of healthy teeth throughout their lives.

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Additional home dental care

Thorough toothbrushing is by far the most effective method of plaque control and prevention of gum disease, particularly when performed on a daily basis. It is also important because it encourages owners to examine the mouth and teeth regularly. This regular examination is important as it makes early recognition of problems more likely. Diseases generally and cancer in particular are best dealt with early. If left too long treatment may not be possible.

Discoloured toothIt is too easy to get into a routine and do things automatically without thinking, so :

  • Stop and think
  • Look, feel, smell
  • Make notes of abnormalities or changes
  • Inform the vet of anything abnormal.

The choice of diet is also important. Soft, sticky foods remain in the mouth and on the teeth for a longer time than firm and dry foods. The longer that are present the more bacteria grow and the more rapidly disease builds up. A nutritional balance is extremely important. Meat alone does not provide all that is necessary (even if bones are given), so use of a commercial diet as a significant portion of the diet is a good idea.

DO NOT give antlerFoods and toys that encourage chewing promote increased salivation. saliva contains numrous components that help control plaque bacteria and reduce periodontal disease progression. Very few 'chews" actually have any significant effect on cleaning the gingival margins of the teeth, and harder items such as bones, cows hooves and many hard chew toys cause significant gum and tooth damage. Beware of antler - it is composed of very hard bone and frequently causes serious tooth fractures if dogs ar allowed to chew it.. Care is required in choosing what is appropriate - see your vet for advice.

Additional hygiene measures may be required in some animals, either because they have particular problems or are undergoing treatments which interfere with the natural protective mechanisms in the mouth. Antibiotics are often prescribed for short term use to help reduce oral infection before, during or after treatment. It is particularly important that such medications are administered as instructed. If this is not possible then the veterinary surgeon must be informed.

Mouth washes, oral rinses and sprays are commonly used in combination with other methods of oral care. Along with ointments and gels, they are most effective for treatment of localised areas of infection, inflammation or injury.

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This page was last updated on March 26, 2006.