Flat-faced dogs have special dental problems
I've written before about the importance of looking after pets' teeth: daily dental care for animals is worthwhile. This is done ideally by tooth brushing, or alternatively by giving a clinically proven dental chew. This daily routine removes plaque from the teeth: this is a soft film of food mixed with saliva. If plaque is not removed regularly, it becomes mineralised after reacting with the saliva, creating hard brown tartar or calculus, which cannot be easily removed. The tartar pushes against the gums, causing periodontal disease which involves the build up of infection in the mouth. Tartar can only be removed by a vet with the animal under anaesthesia, which is why it's far better to prevent it through daily toot care.
Daily dental care is the foundation of veterinary dentistry. If it's done properly, the need for veterinary intervention is kept to a minimum. The most common reason for veterinary dentistry is periodontal disease, and when daily care is carried out, the incidence of periodontal disease is far, far lower. I see some elderly pets with almost perfect teeth, thanks to the dedication of their owners to daily dental care.
There are other reasons for vets to carry out dental work, including the extraction of broken teeth and the treatment of dental abscesses, but they are far less common than periodontal disease.
In a recent veterinary magazine, I read about the latest type of veterinary dental work to be promoted: orthodontics. This is defined as the treatment of irregularities in the teeth and jaws. I feel uneasy about this being done, because most of the dental irregularities in the animal world are seen in pedigree dogs that have been deliberately bred to have a particular appearance. We choose to breed dogs with an appearance that means that they are predestined to have crooked teeth, and we then force them to undergo treatment from veterinary dentists to try to make them more "normal".
Dogs and cats evolved in nature with perfect teeth: this natural ideal is known as a "mesaticephalic" conformation ("middle-sized head"). Human selection when breeding dogs has created brachycephalic breeds, with shorter heads and flatter faces, like Pugs and Bulldogs. This change in shape of the skull means that the teeth are lined up differently, and that's what causes dental problems.
While the length of the muzzle has been shortened through breeding, there are still as many teeth as a long-muzzled dog. This means that the teeth are overcrowded: there just isn't space for them. They are also maloccluded (the teeth in the upper and lower jaw don't meet up properly) and rotated (they are twisted in the wrong orientation). When you open the mouth of a flat-faced dog and look at the teeth, these changes are often very obvious. In many cases, this type of distorted dentition is seen as "normal" for a breed, but it does cause problems. Half-chewed food tends to get trapped in the gaps between the misplaced, twisted teeth, leading to more plaque and tartar accumulation, and eventually more periodontal disease. Small, flat-faced dogs are far more likely to need dental care in middle age compared to more "normal" types of dog breeds.
Orthodontic vets are now offering ways to correct the teeth of such animals while they're young, with the aim of minimising problems as they grow older.
The most simple orthodontic treatment uses so-called "removable orthodontic devices". These are specially measured balls, attached to the end of a rope, that are used in interactive play with dogs for three ten-minute sessions every day. As the dog tugs on the ball, the teeth are gradually displaced outwards, moving them into a more natural, healthier position.
As you can imagine, this technique only works for mild orthodontic problems. For more severe malocclusions, vets need to create orthodontic appliances (like braces) after taking dental impressions and making casts of the dog's teeth to plan the intervention. The braces are glued to the existing teeth, and because they cause some discomfort, dogs being treated with them usually need to be on pain relieving medication. These devices are left in place for two or three months in a growing animal, with the aim of making their mouths more comfortable as they grow older.
The aim of vets giving these treatments is to help affected animals so that they suffer less discomfort from badly positioned teeth. But I believe that this is a situation where we need to do more than just help affected animals. It's back to what I have said before: if people deliberately breed dogs that predictably have these types of inherited problems, they are guilty of a form of cruelty. The German word for this is "qualzucht", or "torture breeding". Just as you'd be guilty of a crime if you kicked a dog in the face, so you should be guilty if you breed a dog that has a painful, malformed mouth, needing uncomfortable veterinary care to make it better.
It's time for the word "qualzucht" to become part of our daily English vocabulary. It's just not fair to dogs to allow them to be born with a mouth full of malaligned teeth that are predictably going to cause them to suffer.