Oral health in our pets can affect their overall health similar to us. There were many diseases we did not understand in veterinary medicine decades ago, and the importance of a healthy mouth was one of them.
Dental disease progresses differently in cats than in dogs. In dogs, plaque builds up over time until calcium in saliva changes the plaque to tartar. The tartar then will lead to gingivitis, which in dogs will progress to gum recession. Bacteria then move under the gum tissue and cause loss of bone around the tooth. The bacteria then have access to the blood, where they can migrate to the liver, kidneys, and heart, causing serious illness.
In cats, the tartar will also cause gingivitis, but the gingivitis is much more aggressive. In many cats the gingivitis stimulates the immune system to then attack the tooth. This may vary from attacking the enamel, which then destroys the integrity of the tooth and leads to exposure of the nerves and blood vessels, to attacking the roots of the tooth. The lesions on the tooth can cause chronic pain, but cats hide pain, and often we do not notice any change in eating habits.
There are several steps you can take to help slow down dental disease. Brushing is the most effective in reducing plaque and slowing the buildup of tartar. You must use toothpaste approved for animals, as human toothpaste is too high in fluoride and animals will swallow the toothpaste. To brush your pet's teeth, face your pet and place one hand around the muzzle to prevent your pet from chewing the toothbrush. Then place the brush under the lip and on the upper canine on one side. Make sure you brush all the way to the back teeth, where tartar accumulates the most. Focus on the outside of the upper teeth. The second best step you can take is changing the diet to a prescription dental diet. Prescription dental diets are fibrous so that they scrub the teeth rather than crumble like kibble does. In addition, certain prescription dental diets have an agent to bind the calcium in the saliva so that it unavailable to form tartar, and also an agent to keep bacteria from proliferating. In addition, there are some oral rinses available to apply directly to the teeth.
The third step of home dental care is using dental chews. There are various prescription and over-the-counter options which when used frequently, can be part of a home care regimen.
As part of oral health prevention, having annual examinations to check the
teeth with your veterinarian is important. Your veterinarian can advise you on the amount of tartar accumulation, if there is any gum disease, or loose or damaged teeth. Professional cleaning of the teeth is necessary at times throughout our pets lives to remove accumulated tartar before more advanced disease leads to tooth loss. You can also get an indication of your pet's dental health by monitoring the breath (bad breath is often due to dental disease) and flipping the lip up to look at the teeth.
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