Teeth and gums (gingiva) are the gateway to the bloodstream. The blood nourishes all the organs in our bodies. If bacteria from dental plaque and tartar enters the blood stream through inflamed gums, it can create infection in the valves of the heart, the complex machinery inside the kidneys, and countless other areas of the body.
We aren’t always able to get a close look at the teeth of our dogs and cats. Even in the smallest of dogs and cats, there is a surprising armament of teeth hidden behind the lips. Underneath the gingiva are tooth roots that are often longer than that part of the tooth that you can see. Many of the teeth have two and three roots each. And the teeth on the top, the maxillary teeth, and the teeth on the bottom, the mandibular teeth, extend far beyond the corners of the lips. To examine these teeth, you must not only lift the lip, but also slide far back beyond the corners of the mouth.
An adult human has 32 teeth, including the wisdom teeth. A cat, though much smaller than we humans, has 30 teeth. And an adult dog has 42 teeth.
Many of the dog’s teeth are larger than ours, and have longer roots. The roots of each tooth are embedded in bone. In the small cat, the tooth and its roots are often stronger than the bone in which it sits.
Dogs and cats experience cavities, pain, periodontal disease, malformed teeth, missing teeth, and plaque and tartar just as we do. They cannot always let us know they have dental pain. Thus, examining the teeth on a regular basis is necessary to ensure good health.
A few signs that your pet may have dental disease may include a bad odor from the mouth, difficulty chewing, food falling out of the mouth, swallowing food without chewing, or reluctance to eat.
When you lift your pet’s lip you should see clean shiny white teeth with normal gum tissue. If you see brown, dull material on the tooth, usually adjacent to the gingiva, that is plaque. Once hardened, this material becomes hard like a shell, and is called calculus or tartar. If left to accumulate, the adjacent gum tissue becomes inflamed. Eventually the gum starts to recede. The tartar works its way up under the gum, loosening the tooth attachments, causing periodontal disease and pain. An abscess can form, meaning a bad infection is now deep underneath the gum tissue. As with people, dental disease is painful, but our pets often aren’t able to tell us they have a problem.
Regular, daily dental brushing is the ideal way to keep your pet’s mouth healthy. Get your pet used to having you examine and clean the teeth. Learn how to brush your pet’s teeth. If you have the opportunity to teach your puppy or kitten right from the start that dental care is part of routine health maintenance, you're off to a good start.
Because most of our dogs and cats will not rinse and spit on command, and they certainly don’t like us going into their mouths with noisy and scary dental equipment, dental cleanings usually require that the patient be fully anesthetized and intubated, meaning an anesthetic breathing tube prevents fluid and debris from being inhaled or swallowing during a dental cleaning procedure. Anesthesia, to be safe and effective, can be expensive -- more so than the dental cleaning itself. So if you can teach your pet to tolerate regular home dental care, you might be able to avoid, or at least minimize, the thorough anesthetized dentistry that might become necessary.
Many veterinary practices offer significant discounts during dental month. These months are often in January and February. Check your pet’s teeth, or ask your vet or vet technician to look and see if your pet needs a dental cleaning.
You can take a big step in maximizing your dog’s or cat’s health by taking care of any dental issues before they become a big problem. We’d like your pet to keep all his or her teeth well into their teens. Remember, a healthy mouth can add years to your pet’s life. Improved dental care in our companion animals has been one of the prime reasons our pets are living longer healthier lives today.