How do you know if your dog or cat has gum disease? After all, the odds are that anyone, including our pets, who don't brush their teeth regularly will develop tartar on their teeth. And by age 3 years, 80% of dogs and 70% cats have visible tartar and gingivitis.
The cause of gum disease is the same in cats and dogs as it is in people. Gum disease is an infection resulting from the build‐up of soft dental plaque on the surfaces of the teeth around the gums. Although the plaque layer is essentially clear and not easily noticed, the bacteria in this invisible layer irritate the gum tissue. If plaque is allowed to accumulate, it transforms into hard dental tartar (“calculus”), consisting of calcium salts from saliva deposited over time in the plaque layer. Tartar starts to form within a few days on a tooth surface that is not kept clean, and provides a rough surface that enhances further plaque accumulation. Once it has begun to grow in thickness, tartar is difficult to remove without dental instruments.
The effects of gum disease can be significant. Bad breath is the most common effect noted by pet owners. However, this is often only the tip of the iceberg. The gums become irritated, leading to bleeding and oral pain, and your cat or dog may lose its appetite or drop food from its mouth while eating. Ultimately, the roots of the teeth may become so severely affected that some teeth become loose and fall out. Bacteria surrounding the roots gain access to the blood stream ("bacteremia"). Studies have shown that dogs and cats with severe periodontal disease have more severe microscopic damage in their kidneys, heart muscle, and liver than do pets with less severe periodontal disease.
The key to management of gum disease (for humans or pets!) is prevention. As long as the surfaces of the teeth are kept clean, the gums will stay healthy. The gold standard is brushing, although daily chewing activities can also be effective in maintaining oral health. Use of products that have been awarded the Veterinary Oral Health Council Seal (visit www.VOHC.org) will help keep your pet’s teeth clean and the gum tissues and bone around the roots of the teeth healthy. Specifically, we recommend incorporating as many the following methods as possible into a routine home dental health plan for your pets.
1. Routine tooth brushing at home can be done using a regular soft‐bristle tooth brush for dogs, and a toothbrush or a C.E.T. Finger Toothbrush for cats or dogs. There are several toothpastes that can be used. The best time to start a home program of brushing is when your pet is still a puppy or kitten. We will be happy to demonstrate the easiest ways to brush a pet’s teeth. For a description of exactly how we recommend brushing pets teeth, see the article titled “Periodontal Disease in Dogs and Cats” located in the Pet health Library at www.webvets.com.
2. There are a number of recommended chew toys and treats to help reduce plaque and tartar buildup. “C.E.T. Chews” are available for dogs and cats which contain plaque‐destroying enzymes and antiseptics. “Greenies” are chew treats for both dogs and cats that act as an abrasive to remove plaque. For dogs, hard rubber or plastic chew toys, and leather (“rawhide”) chews have also been shown to reduce plaque and tartar accumulation. Hard bones are not advisable because of the risk of tooth fractures and the potential need for surgery to remove a bone if swallowed.
3. A specially designed food called “Prescription Diet t/d” can be used as a pet's regular diet. It is uniquely formulated to scrape plaque off the teeth better than regular dry food, which normally crumbles before removing any significant amount of plaque. This is available for both cats and dogs.
The interval between professional dental cleanings varies depending on how many of the above aspects of home treatment are employed, and is also affected by differences between individual pets. Tartar buildup and periodontal disease develop more rapidly in small dogs, and in certain pure breeds of cats.