February is national pet dental health month. 85% of pets over the age of 2 years have periodontal disease. Periodontal disease is a disease of the gums and structures that support the teeth. It begins with the plaque that builds up on teeth after each meal, which mixes with the bacteria in the mouth, and hardens to form tartar. Over time, the tartar, plaque, and bacteria irritate the gums and cause painful inflammation. This inflammation causes pockets to form between the teeth and gums, where additional bacteria and tartar can hide. This leads to gum recession, which then leads to bone loss. Bone loss can lead to tooth loss or abscesses (infection). Gum recession and bone loss are irreversible once they occur.
Cats have a couple of special dental diseases in addition to tartar accumulation. One of these is called resorptive lesions. It is estimated that in addition to periodontal disease, more than 50% of cats over the age of 3 have tooth resorption. These are similar to cavities, but are not caused by bacteria. The enamel of the tooth is eaten away and the nerve becomes exposed and painful. Often if we see one of these during an exam it is not uncommon to find more when we have the pet under anesthesia as these lesions tend to form right along or under the gum line. The crown of the tooth can get eaten away and leave behind just a root, which is at risk for later abscess. Cats can also have an immune response to their own teeth and have severe gingivitis called stomatitis. This is often seen with very red, inflamed gum tissue.
Dental disease can cause bacteria to enter the bloodstream, which can cause infections in other organs such as the kidneys, heart, lungs, liver, and nervous system. These infections can be very severe and can even become life threatening. Also, a painful mouth can cause pets to stop eating, which can exacerbate existing conditions.
Since pets are so prone to dental issues, we examine your pet’s teeth at every visit and will let you know if we are seeing any problems, what grade we think your pet’s teeth are, and when a dental cleaning would be appropriate for your pet. If warranted, we may recommend a dental cleaning under general anesthesia. This procedure allows us to identify pockets in gum tissue, identify loose, broken, or missing teeth, clean all surfaces of the teeth both above and below the gum line removing plaque and tartar, and remove loose, broken, diseased or infected teeth.
We use a dental disease score from 0-4. Zero is given to teeth with absolutely no tartar formation visible, usually reserved for puppies, kittens, and pets who have just had their teeth cleaned. Grade 1 disease indicates that tartar is now visible, but no gum irritation is noted. Grade 2 means the tartar has started to accumulate, and now there is evidence of gingivitis or gum inflammation. At or slightly before we reach grade 2 is when we recommend a dental cleaning for your pet. At grade 3, the gums have become irritated enough that they are starting to recede. This is irreversible, though a teeth cleaning at this time may help prevent bone loss and the loss of teeth. Grade 4 dental disease is very serious dental disease and many teeth have root exposure due to loss of bone and gum recession. These teeth often need to be extracted. This grade of dental disease is very painful for the pet and performing a cleaning with extractions often leads to pain relief for them.
There are things you can do at home to help prevent dental disease in your pets. Brushing your pet’s teeth with a pet toothpaste at least 3 times a week is the best home care available. Other options available include dental diets, dental rinses, and dental chews such as those made by C.E.T. Once tartar forms however, the only way to remove it is through a dental cleaning performed at your veterinarian’s office under general anesthesia.
Ask us today what your pet’s dental disease score is and what dental care is recommended!