Dental care for pets makes scientific sense

By Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Published 17/09/2016 | 00:00

Preventive dental care saves money in the long term
Preventive dental care saves money in the long term

"Why must we inflict manmade inventions like toothbrushes and ram them into a dog's mouth? Dogs were grand for centuries until vets wanted more money off people with scaremongering over dogs' teeth."

I always value feedback from readers, even caustic comments like the one above that came in recently. Criticisms like this can provide the opportunity to explain issues in more detail, and that's what I'm going to do this week.

There's no doubt that the concept of dental care for dogs is relatively new. Fifty years ago, nobody bothered to brush dogs' teeth. The only time dentistry happened in the dog world was when a pet was taken to the vet for multiple extractions because their mouth was so full of foul smelling infection and tartar. Is this really what the reader longs for, when he says "dogs were grand?"

Veterinary scientists started to look into dental disease in pets in the 1970's, and it wasn't until the 1980's that the first specialist veterinary dental associations were established. Up until then, nobody had paid much attention to what happened in pets' mouths.

The increased attention to dentistry is a direct result of the deepening of the bond between people and their pets. In the past, dogs may have been left in the yard, rarely taken for walks, and certainly they were not seen as part of the "family". This has now changed, with pets living in the home, and being cared for with love that would have been reserved for human family members in the past.

People don't want to wait until their pets are suffering from advanced dental disease before taking action. They want their pets to enjoy a healthy mouth for as long as possible.

This increased attention to pet dental health has coincided with an increased understanding of the processes that lead to animal dental disease. The old myth that dogs' mouths are somehow "self cleaning" has been shown to be completely untrue.

The facts are now clearly understood, and they are surprisingly similar to the human situation. The biggest issue in dogs is not dental decay, but rather "periodontal disease", which means disease of the gums and other structures adjacent to the teeth.

The two critical definitions to understand are "plaque" and "tartar".

Plaque is the soft film of food mixed with saliva that coats teeth after eating. It is like wet paint, in that it can easily be removed by rubbing the tooth with a brush or with the abrasive surface of a dental treat.

Tartar (also known as "calculus") is the hard, rock-like, brown substance that develops if plaque is not cleaned off. The minerals in saliva react with the plaque on the teeth to form tartar. Tartar cannot be rubbed off with a brush or a dental treat. The only way to remove it is physically scraping with a hard surface like a metal instrument or an ultrasonic descaler.

Tartar accumulates on the teeth, with layer after layer getting thicker and thicker, and it pushes against the gums, causing inflammation and allowing infection to develop.

The aim of routine dental care in pets is to remove the plaque before it can develop into tartar. If this is done effectively, dogs can have healthy mouths with perfect teeth right up into old age.

Plaque can be removed easily, like wiping wet paint off woodwork, but it needs to be done regularly. The gentle abrasive action of a toothbrush has been proven to be the most effective way of doing this, but dogs do need to be trained to accept this. The next best approach is to give regular dental treats, designed for plaque removal and proven to be effective. Traditional methods, like feeding raw bones, can lead to problems such as broken teeth because the surface of the bones is so hard. This is what the scientists have proven: I am not saying this because "I want more money off people".

If plaque is not removed regularly, it is almost certain to develop into tartar. There are ways that this transformation can be limited: substances can be placed in the mouth that stop the reaction of minerals in saliva with plaque. Some dental treats include these substances, so that as the pet chews the treats, the teeth are given an anti-tartar coating.

Despite people's efforts, the accumulation of tartar on the teeth is still common in dogs. As I've said, this can only be removed by veterinary attention, and since dogs won't sit still and open their mouths while this is done, a general anaesthetic is needed. Of course this can be costly, but there's no other way for the problem to be solved.

And this is why people like myself talk about preventive measures: if you can take steps to keep your pet's teeth healthy in the first place, there may be no need for the more expensive remedial measures that are needed to deal with advanced dental problems in a pet's mouth.

The introduction of preventive dental care means that I see far fewer foul-smelling, seriously diseased pets' mouths than when I qualified as a vet thirty years ago. How can this not be good news?

To watch videos of Pete demonstrating preventive dental care in pets, visit the Pedigree Ireland Facebook page

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