Newsletter May 2016
When Good Teeth go BAD
Seventy-five percent of dogs over three years old have some dental disease. Sometimes it’s very obvious – you can see the tartar, inflamed gums, and loose teeth, or you can smell the infection. But, there are hidden effects as well. Oral infections can spread and damage the kidneys, heart, and liver, shortening dogs’ lives.
Dental disease begins with a thin film of plaque on the teeth. This soft layer of food and bacteria is easily disturbed by simply brushing it off. Left in place for more than 24 hours, plaque mineralizes, forming hard tartar. This stays on the teeth until it’s mechanically removed.
The tartar anchors to the tooth, causing the gum attachment to fall away. The sulcus (the depression in the gum next to the tooth) is a mere millimetre or two in a healthy mouth. In dogs with severe gum disease, we can sometimes probe pockets as deep as 15 millimeters. Bone support breaks down, the tooth becomes abscessed, and the loose tooth eventually falls out.
Small breeds (think Yorkshire Terriers) tend to accumulate tartar, develop significant gum recession, and lose many teeth by the time they are five years old. Larger breeds (like German Shepherds) don’t tend to suffer from the effects of tartar but they can damage their teeth.
A tooth fracture exposes the pulp cavity, the inside fleshy part of the tooth. Bacteria can invade and multiply, causing an abscess, and this can cause tooth loss as well.
From our own experiences, we know that dental disease causes pain. The problem is that dogs don’t tell you in obvious terms – you have to look for it. If it’s severe, you may notice your dog chewing on one side of the mouth. Or, he might drop food while chewing. Others rub the side of their face on the floor or couch.
The most common sign of dental pain is something easily missed – lethargy. Many owners think the inactivity is related to aging. But, when the dental disease is resolved, the owner suddenly reports that their dog feels like a puppy again.
However, with both fractured teeth and diseased gums, the real issue is the bacteria. Tartar is a breeding ground for bacteria. These microbes multiply, penetrate the inflamed gums, enter the bloodstream, and find their way to the heart, kidneys, and liver.
In the heart, the bacteria settle on the delicate heart valves. This infection creates scarring and the valves don’t close properly. This is why so many little dogs with bad teeth have heart murmurs signifying leaky valves. These dogs can end up dying from congestive heart failure.
When bacteria land in the kidneys and liver, they create tiny abscesses. Kidney impairment is one consequence. We also see elevations in liver enzymes on blood tests. Bacteria from bad teeth are continually showering these organs.
How can we prevent all this? Regular veterinary examinations can help spot problems in the early stages. Professional cleaning above and below the gum line can eliminate the source of the bacteria. Waiting until a problem develops and the pockets have deepened can expose the root. This creates irreparable damage and loss of the tooth.
You can also do home care. Daily brushing can go a long way to removing the plaque before it mineralizes. If tartar has already formed, it’s too late to get that off with a brush, but you can slow further build-up.
If you can’t brush, encourage your dog to chew one of the many chew toys designed to improve oral health. Some have bumps that increase abrasion on the teeth; others are flavored to make them attractive to discerning dogs.
Should you give your dog bones? Some veterinarians express concern over bones because sharp pieces can get stuck in the stomach or intestines, requiring emergency surgery to remove them. In contrast, other veterinarians believe the oral health of dogs can be improved significantly with bone chewing.
If you want to offer a bone to your dog, use common sense. Don’t offer dense, sharp bones like rib bones or pork chop bones. They are more likely to splinter or be swallowed whole. Raw bones are less likely to splinter than cooked bones.
If chew toys don't work for your dog and daily brushing doesn't work for you, what else can you do? You will see special "dental diets". Some of these diets rely on the mechanical act of chewing large, fibrous pieces to remove plaque from the teeth. Others include hexametaphosphate (HMP). This compound binds to the calcium in dog saliva, retarding tartar formation.
We have two isuses with these diets. One is the ingredients - they are poor. And, they tend to be over-rated in how well they perform. Just relying on a dental diet won't work.
Your dog needs diligent oral care from both you and your veterinarian to live a full and healthy life. The most effective things you can do to help keep teeth clean are:
offer bones, treats, and toys to chew
try home care such as daily rubbing or brushing of teeth and gums, and
provide regular oral examinations.
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