Did you know that our entire body (humans, dogs, cats and other mammals included) is covered in a continuous coating of specialized skin or skin-like tissue to protect us internally from outside foreign objects and contagions (bacteria, viruses, molds, etc)? The ONLY place where there is a break in this protective barrier is in the mouth when the teeth erupt. An adult cat has 30 teeth and an adult dog has 42 teeth. This means that throughout our pet’s lives a cat has 30 areas and dogs have 42 areas of compromised protection.
We like to think of pet’s teeth as something that is impervious, unbreakable, invulnerable and a separate entity from their bodies, from their bloodstream. Matter of fact, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Our pet’s teeth are directly connected to their bloodstream. Their teeth are alive and contain blood vessels and nerves. We seldom stop to think about this and what this truly means to their overall health.
Let’s go over some tooth anatomy. There are 4 main components of the tooth. They are enamel, dentin, cementum and the pulp. The exposed part of the tooth, the crown, is covered with a very strong material called enamel. Although this is very strong, it is not impervious. Enamel can fracture under extreme pressure. When it fractures it exposes the internal structure of the tooth, which is made up of calcified tissue called dentin. This dentin is a highly porous, sensitive living tissue that is in direct communication with the nerves of the tooth. The nerves, lymphatics and the blood supply to the tooth live in the center of the tooth, which is called the pulp. Below the gum line the tooth root is covered in cementum. Cementum is calcified connective tissue that is not impervious like healthy enamel that covers the crown. In fact the cementum is permeable.
Knowing all of this, it is easy to see how a healthy mouth leads to a healthy pet. When our pets have disease in their mouth the tight collar of healthy gum tissue that is supposed to surround each tooth as a natural physical barrier gets swollen. It lifts away from the tooth and exposes the cementum of the tooth. The cementum is not supposed to be exposed, it lacks protective properties; cementum is permeable to the underlying dentin. Remember the dentin has direct communication with the blood supply, lymphatic’s and nerves of the tooth. Thus an open gateway to internal demise has been created. The bacteria and viruses have direct access to the internal highways of your pet’s body to cause havoc in ALL the major organs (lungs, brain, heart, kidneys, liver). Once the invaders gain access, the pet’s body goes in to a constant state of stress. The pet’s immune system gets compromised and circulating cortisol levels rise. All of these events in this cascade further contribute to damage to our pet’s internal organs.
Dental disease is an unfortunate common occurrence in the pet population. 80% of dogs and cats over the age of 2-3 have dental disease! This percentage is WAY higher than any other physical ailment that I see on a daily occurrence in veterinary medicine. As you can see dental disease is not just about clean appearing teeth. Matter of fact, 60% of the tooth lives BELOW the gum line. The only way to thoroughly examine the tooth root and surrounding tissue that is located below the gum line is through dental x-rays. If dental x-rays are not done we miss evaluating the integrity of well over half of the mouth!
The number one thing that we can do for our pets to help prevent the development of dental disease is to brush their teeth. Like human medicine, veterinary medicine has come a long way. Some of us have older pets that are not going to be cooperative with this new endeavor. For those of us that have young pets, or pets that are open to change and new things I encourage everyone to START SLOWLY, but try to get our best friends on board with having us brush their teeth. For our feline friends I recommend using a Q-tip (cotton tip applicator) to make long brush strokes along the sides of their mouths at the lip margin. Try to imitate their classic “chin rub” motion they naturally do on us, the furniture, wall corners, etc. For our K-9 companions I recommend using a soft bristle human toothbrush. Adult sized for medium to large breed and child size for the smaller breeds. Steady their muzzle with one hand and slip the toothbrush under their lips. You don’t have to see what you are actually doing. Just the outside of the teeth only needs to be brushed in both dogs and cats. It may take several months to earn your pet’s trust and acceptance, but with patience and time I am certain that you two will learn to do the toothbrush dance together! Aim to brush daily and offer them a special morsel afterwards as their reward. Try not to give this extra-special morsel at any other time other than after having their teeth brushed.
There are several over the counter products on the market that claim to help decrease plaque and tartar formation. We need to remember and realize these products WILL NOT REVERSE disease. Some of these products will only help prevent disease. I say some because products do not have to be tested to prove what their labels claim. Only products that have the VOHC seal on them have actually undergone scientific testing to prove what their label claims to be true. VOHC stands for Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC.org). Look for this label on the products that you give to your pets to ensure that you are giving them a good preventative dental product.
Signs of dental disease are a sudden increase in mouth odor, excessive drooling, face shyness, swelling of the face or gum tissue and lethargy, depression, or no change at all! Sadly many pets are just thought to be “getting older” when really in fact they are suffering silently from dental disease. Remember our pets are animals. Animals have it deeply engrained in them to avoid showing any sign of illness in order to survive. It is our responsibility as their lifelong advocate that we be aware of their health status. We made that commitment to them when we took them into our homes.
As a veterinarian I personally have made a commitment to my patients to continue to learn throughout my career on how best to help them. I regularly attend continuing education opportunities so that I can be the very best doctor for my patients. In addition to regular continuing education opportunities I am a member of the Veterinary Dental Academy. By becoming a member of this elite group I have access to continuously learn about veterinary dentistry. There are several limited access opportunities for academy members only on a regular basis that I participate in. I love every aspect of veterinary medicine, but I have a special passion for promoting optimal oral health in my patients.
Article provided by associate veterinarian, Dr. Sue Peters, at Baywood Veterinary Hospital, Cape Coral Florida. If there are any questions she can be reached at 239-549-2949.