Periodontal disease is the most common health problem in dogs and cats. This disease occurs when oral bacteria attach to the teeth as a part of plaque. The plaque and bacteria then expand under the gum line, creating inflammation and attachment loss of the soft tissue surrounding the tooth (called the periodontal space). This process will eventually lead to tooth loss as the periodontal tissue and supporting bone structures recede. As you might imagine, periodontal disease can be very painful.
Additionally, the inflammation of the gums (gingivitis) allows the oral bacteria to enter the bloodstream. The bacteria are then carried to organs in the body such as the heart, liver, and kidneys. Over time, this infection can lead to decreased function of vital organs. This is why keeping the mouth healthy leads to overall body health.
There is no “cure” for periodontal disease, only control. The best control is through prevention of the disease: daily home teeth brushing and regular professional dental cleanings.
- Dental Plaque = a biofilm mixture of mucous and bacteria on the surface of the tooth
- Dental Tartar = layers of hardened plaque
- Gingivitis = inflammation of the gums
Is a pet dental cleaning similar to human teeth cleaning?
A professional dental cleaning for dogs and cats is the same as when you go to the dentist, with the one exception that a pet dental cleaning is done under general anesthesia. It includes scaling the plaque and tartar off of the teeth as well as below the gum line (subgingival), polishing the teeth, and a complete oral exam including notes on the health of each tooth in the mouth.
The subgingival space is where the gums are attached to the tooth, and a complete oral exam will probe the gums to look for unusual pocketing in this area. Subgingival scaling is also very important because this space is where periodontal disease begins and is the difference between professional dental cleaning and a purely cosmetic procedure.
Then why does my pet need to be under anesthesia for a dental cleaning?
Subgingival cleaning and a thorough oral exam cannot be completed on a pet that is awake. Roughly half of the tooth surfaces are difficult (sometimes impossible) to assess when your pet is awake. An important difference between humans and pets is that, in dogs and cats, 80% of the teeth are below the gum line, which is why dental x-rays are important for the full evaluation of the teeth. Dental x-rays also cannot be completed on an awake pet. These reasons are why a professional, effective dental cleaning requires general anesthesia.
What if my pet needs to have a tooth extracted?
When a tooth does need to be extracted, we use a variety of advanced surgical techniques to remove the tooth safely, and not damage other healthy teeth surrounding the diseased tooth. In addition to general anesthesia, we also use a local anesthetic around the tooth being extracted to help lessen the amount general anesthesia required and to lessen the immediate discomfort of your pet when they are awake after the cleaning.
My veterinarian said my cat has a ‘resorptive lesion.’ What is that?
Aside from periodontal disease, another common dental issue is tooth resorption. Up to 70% of cats may be affected by tooth resorption during their lifetime. We are now finding this issue can also occur in dogs. Tooth resorption is a disease process where certain cells in the tooth become overactive, and break down the tooth (often starting from the outside and working its way to the inside).
While we still do not know the exact initiating cause of resorption, we do know this is a painful process that needs to be treated with extraction of the affected tooth. Also, many resorptive lesions only occur below the gum line. This is why dental x-rays are essential to identifying affected teeth and treating them appropriately.
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