Dental Home Care

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

There are still pet owners who believe that providing dental care for their pet is just too much. The dogs and cats they had when they were growing up never had their teeth cleaned or had home care given, they argue. Why on earth should a pet need dental care nowadays, they question. I understand where they are coming from. When I was boy growing up on a dairy farm in south-western Ontario, we always had dogs. Were they important animals in our lives? Absolutely they were. Did anyone ever pay attention to their teeth? Not that I knew about. Did that mean they never had tooth, gum or mouth problems? I doubt that very much. Ignorance can be bliss as long as you are not the one with a toothache. Health care recommendations are different now for people and animals than they were in times past.

People, also, often ask about wild canines and felines. Has Mother Nature not helped them in the battle against dental disorders? Well, there may be some help in controlling plaque by chewing through hides and haircoats of their prey. Chewing and ingesting certain internal organs may also have some benefit. But remember these animals have one-half or less the life expectancy of our pets. Our pets need to have healthy teeth to have quality in that extra quantity of life they enjoy.

While I believe a pet owner is the one who should be making health care decisions for their own pet, I also believe that ensuring a pet has healthy teeth is the responsibility of anyone who has a pet. In order to achieve that goal of healthy teeth for a pet it means you will need the help of a veterinarian in their role as a dental care professional. Also, pet owners, themselves, can play an important part in achieving the desired outcome by providing some dental home care.

Let's focus this time on what an owner can do in the way of dental care at home. Imagine you have just had your cat or dog have their teeth cleaned by a veterinarian. Their breath is fresh and their teeth sparkling white. Within hours a film of salivary glycoproteins starts to form on exposed dental surfaces. In a few more hours, bacteria found in the mouth begin to grow in this film. This is the beginning of plaque forming. Add some cells shed from the lining of the mouth and gums, some white blood cells and some food particles. In as short a time as two days this immature plaque, if undisturbed, can start to precipitate salivary minerals to form calculus. Calculus in turn will provide a safe environment for more troublesome bacteria that may lead to the development of gingivitis and periodontitis. To prevent this from happening plaque must be removed before it becomes organized and mineralized.

Dental home care refers to anything owners do at home on a regular basis to control plaque and keep the periodontum -the tissues surrounding and supporting the teeth in the jaw - healthy. Daily brushing of the teeth with soft-bristled nylon toothbrush has been shown to be the most effective means of plaque control. The mechanical action of the brush against the tooth surface removes the plaque. The brush also massages the gingiva which strengthens it and makes it more firm around the teeth.

Now does every pet require home care?  Well most veterinary dental specialists would agree that the most important factor in determining the development of dental disease is genetics. Diet, chewing habits, general health and the actual architecture of the teeth and mouth all play a role in the susceptibility of a pet to dental problems. However, the best defense is to be born with the genes that give an ability to cope with those bacteria in the mouth. Unfortunately, at the present we have no control over which pets may receive this blessing. In the meantime, your veterinarian is the best person to advise you on the level of home care that will benefit your pet.