Did you know that dental disease is the most common health condition to affect dogs and cats? By 3 years of age, most pets have at least the beginning stages of dental disease. Many people think it’s normal for pets to have bad breath, but halitosis is a sign that things are going awry in your pet’s mouth. Not only does dental disease cause discolored teeth and nasty breath, it can actually lead to serious health problems, such as heart disease. The good news? It’s entirely preventable.

A quick lesson in tooth anatomy

Crown: The part of the tooth above the gum line.

Root: The part of the tooth below the gum line that fits into a bony socket in the jaw.

Gingiva: Gum tissue surrounding the tooth.

Periodontal ligament: Soft tissue that attaches the root of the tooth firmly into the bony socket.

Progression of dental disease

Dental disease begins with the production of plaque, a sticky substance that coats the tooth surface, by oral bacteria. If plaque remains on the tooth, minerals in the saliva harden it into tartar, or dental calculus.

Tartar accumulation on the crown of the tooth can easily be seen. But, it’s the unseen plaque and tartar below the gum line that cause the serious damage. Sub-gingival bacteria associated with plaque and tartar release toxins that cause gingival inflammation (gingivitis). Gingivitis advances to periodontitis as the periodontal ligament deteriorates and the bone surrounding the tooth root begins to break down. The roots of the affected teeth become loose, and, if periodontitis progresses further, tooth loss will occur.

Dangers of dental disease

The obvious effects of dental disease include tooth decay and loss, but there are other consequences that many people are unaware of.

As periodontitis progresses, tooth roots can become infected and form an abscess. Infection may even spread to the bone, causing osteomyelitis. The bone surrounding diseased teeth becomes weakened, which can lead to jaw fracture in severe cases.

Perhaps the most dangerous result of dental disease is the effect it can have on the heart. Bacteria from diseased teeth can enter the bloodstream and attach to heart valves. The bacteria then secrete a protective layer, forming a plaque on the heart valve that interferes with valve function and can even lead to heart failure.

Another serious consequence of dental disease is chronic pain. If you’ve ever had a toothache, you know that oral pain is excruciating. Can you imagine living every day with pain radiating from decaying teeth? Unfortunately, this is a reality for many pets with advanced dental disease.

Signs of dental disease

Because our pets can’t tell us when they’re feeling pain, it’s important to watch for signs of dental disease. Some signs of dental disease include:

  • Bad breath (halitosis)
  • Discolored teeth
  • Red or bleeding gums
  • Decreased appetite
  • Increased salivation/drooling

By the time signs of dental disease become obvious, the damage to the periodontal ligament and tooth root is usually quite advanced. If you observe any of these signs, your pet should be seen for a dental exam immediately.

Prevention of dental disease

Like most health-related issues, prevention is the best medicine when it comes to dental disease in pets. It is much easier to prevent dental disease from developing than to treat it once present. Routine dental care removes tartar and can even reverse gingivitis and early periodontitis.

Regular tooth brushing is the best way to prevent dental disease. A variety of pet-friendly toothbrushes and pastes are available. Daily brushing removes plaque from the tooth surface before it has a chance to mineralize into tartar.

The next best thing to tooth brushing is regular veterinary dental evaluations. A full dental exam should be performed at least annually to look for problems, such as dental tartar, gingivitis, periodontitis, loose teeth, and oral masses.

If signs of dental disease are present during examination, your veterinarian will recommend a dental cleaning under anesthesia. A veterinary dental cleaning is similar to the dental cleaning you receive when you visit the dentist. Plaque and tartar are removed from the tooth surface—both above and below the gum line—and the tooth surface is smoothed by polishing. If dental disease is advanced, teeth with severe periodontitis and root damage may need to be removed.

Clean up your pet’s oral health! Call us at 615-896-3434 to schedule your pet’s next appointment.