Sarah Southard, DVM
Pets and Livestock
February is National Pet Dental Health Month, sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). While we often seek regular dental care for ourselves and our families, our companion animals’ oral health and hygiene are not always considered as routine care needs. However, just like in humans, diseases of the teeth and gums can lead to serious infections which affect not only the mouth but spread to other parts of the body. Bacterial infections that originate in the mouth can travel through the bloodstream to affect the heart, liver, and kidneys. Fractured teeth, cavities, receding gum lines resulting in loose teeth, and oral cancers are all possibilities as well. An oral exam should be part of your pet’s yearly or twice-yearly check-up and, if present, problems should be addressed immediately.
Equines also need regular oral exams and proper dental care. Horses, mules, and donkeys all have teeth which grow continuously throughout their life. Due to differences in the alignment of the upper and lower jaw, the entire tooth surface is not worn down evenly by chewing action. This leads to development of sharp points at the edges of the teeth as they grow. These points can cause painful sores if they are not removed regularly by “floating” the teeth (filing of the points to create a smooth surface). In addition, equines can develop problems with fractured or lost teeth, dental infections, or oral cancers. The earlier these issues are found and dealt with, the more likely it is that a positive outcome is possible.
A few signs of oral health problems in our animals of any size can include bad breath, trouble taking in or chewing food, dropping food while eating, bleeding from the mouth, or loss of appetite and/or weight. While some of these signs are specific to oral problems, others are quite generic and may indicate any of a number of health problems. If you notice any of these problems in your companion animals, schedule a visit with your veterinarian as soon as possible. Many dental issues can be resolved by your primary care veterinarian. If he or she finds a more complicated issue, referral to a board-certified veterinary dentist is an option as well.
You can implement routines at home to help decrease tooth and gum disease in your small animals. Regular brushing for dogs and cats may sound impossible, but with patience and proper training, it can become a natural part of your daily or weekly routine. Be sure to use pet-specific products; human toothbrushes are not sized or shaped appropriately for dog or cat mouths and human toothpastes can contain ingredients that are harmful or toxic to dogs and cats. (Artificial sweeteners, for instance.) In addition to regular brushing, use of certain types of food, treats, or toys designed to help decrease plaque and tarter build up can also be helpful. Talk with your veterinarian about a proper plan for at-home dental care specific for your pet. Other helpful resources include the AVMA website (search “pet dental care”) and the American Veterinary Dental College.