Dental Hygiene for Dogs
Dental problems are common in dogs. Treatment can be quite painful for dogs and expensive for you (see our article on dog insurance). So it’s important to understand dental disease and how it can be prevented and treated. The mouth of a dog is host to literally hundreds of different species of microorganisms. Teeth make excellent surfaces for bacteria to colonise; the immune system cannot reach them there and food is constantly present. This results in plaque, a ‘biofilm’ composed of millions of bacteria mixed with food particles and mucous. Over time, plaque becomes mineralised by the salts found in saliva, and solidifies as tartar. Tartar collects around the gum line, which is the central battleground in dental disease. It’s here that white blood cells encounter bacteria living on the crown as they try to colonise the tooth root, bone and surrounding soft tissues. The resulting inflammation is known as gingivitis. At this point the problem can be resolved – dental cleaning relieves gingivitis, as bacteria are removed and lose their foothold on the tooth. If tartar isn’t removed, its accumulation allows bacteria, particularly some that prefer low-oxygen environments, to persist at the gum line. The bacteria then digest the bone beneath the gum line. Loss of bone exposes the tooth roots and destabilises the tooth; the severe inflammation accompanying this is known as periodontitis. Specialist veterinary dentists can use restoratives or periodontal surgery to shore up affected teeth, but in the longer term extraction is usually necessary. Since animals seldom complain, dental disease often develops silently. It’s common for owners to be unaware of just how bad their dogs’ teeth are. Animals may just appear to have bad breath, or seem grumpy and keep eating despite discomfort. This means that major dental operations involving multiple extractions are often required because periodontal problems have been developing for a long time. It should be noted that it’s not good if teeth fall out by themselves. Usually this happens after months or years of pain and infections. A root fragment is often left behind, which maintain an ongoing infection to the jaw bone.
There are other dental problems that your dog may encounter such as endodontal disease; broken teeth; and with teeth growing in the wrong place. As humans we control dental disease by brushing and flossing our teeth; by using mouthwash and by visiting our dentist regularly. Brushing is also the best way to prevent dental problems for your dog. Not only does brushing teeth physically remove plaque, it is the only form of home care that introduces oxygen to under the gum line. This is important in reducing invasion by the agents of periodontitis. Some dogs may be challenging to brush, but it is worth the effort and may save you high vet bills! Only the outside of the teeth must be brushed. There are various meat-flavoured toothpastes for fussy dogs.
Please note that human toothpaste should not be used as these contain fluoride which is potentially toxic to animals. Apart from brushing, the next most effective preventative strategy is diet. Generally speaking, dry food is superior to wet because more saliva is needed to eat dry kibble and saliva contains natural anti-bacterials. Dry food is also a little more abrasive on teeth than most wet diets. Nevertheless, dogs fed regular dry food can still eventually develop dental problems. Some special diets are available that are extra chewy or abrasive, while others contain special substances that prevent tartar formation by absorbing salivary salts. Many people also advocate the feeding of raw meaty bones to prevent dental diesease, but it’s not uncommon for dogs to break their teeth on bones that are too big and hard for them.
On balance, it’s better to give your dog one of the many dental chew treats or toys available. Other preventative options include pet mouthwash treatments, drinking-water additives and even a vaccination against one of the major disease-causing bacteria. If however, your dog has already developed dental problems, it’s important to relive their pain and restore their dental health. Modern veterinary practices offer sophisticated treatment methods – hand tools, and ultrasonic scaler, and electric/compressed air driven machines are used to clean and polish teeth to ensure that all bacteria are removed. X-rays are often used to identify any teeth with periodontal disease, endodontal disease or cavities. Extractions, root canals or other procedures may then be performed after the injection of local anaesthetic. All of this can be expensive and it is worth considering dog insurance to minimise your vet bills. Often dog owners remark how much happier their dog is after dental treatment. Imagine how your teeth would feel if you never brushed them!
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