February is veterinary dental health month, so I wanted to spend a little time discussing the importance of dental health for your pet.

For starters, “doggy breath” is not normal, and should not be ignored. It is caused by bacteria growing in the mouth. The plaque and tartar that build on the teeth lead to periodontal disease, which is disease below the gumline that we can’t see on exam. The result is bone loss, which leads to very painful mouths and the loss of teeth. This also allows bacteria to circulate through the bloodstream, which may lead to other problems.

But regardless of at-home health care, your pet still needs regular COHATs (Comprehensive Oral Health Assessment and Treatment, commonly called dentals). All COHATs MUST include dental x-rays, since most dental disease in dogs and cats occurs under the gumline.

The mainstay of dental health is at-home care. The best thing you can do is brush your pet’s teeth daily. Just imagine what your mouth would be like without tooth brushing! Most dogs and cats can be taught to tolerate brushing. For those that don’t, other products are available, including dental diets, treats, chews, oral rinses, and water additives. Do be careful, some products are not good for all pets. I’ve seen broken teeth from hooves, antlers and some of the hard plastic chew toys. Other products simply don’t work. One way to help protect yourself from useless product is to check whether it has the VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council) seal of approval. VOHC does not test the products themselves, but requires manufacturers to submit studies proving their product claims. http://vohc.org

During the procedure, a thorough oral exam is performed and all teeth are probed. This is when many oral tumors are diagnosed, and if possible, removed. For some, cleaning and polishing are the only treatments required. Others require the extraction of diseased teeth as well. Clients are often concerned about how the pet will be able to eat if many teeth are extracted. Surprisingly, most pets continue to eat hard food very well, even after full-mouth extractions. Many small-breed dogs and cats need a COHAT yearly, larger dogs can sometimes wait 2 years between treatments.

The concern I hear most from clients is the fear of anesthesia. Our anesthesia protocols have evolved tremendously over the past 10-15 years. While we can never eliminate all risk, we do as much as possible to minimize it. Here at Young’s we require pre-surgical bloodwork before all anesthetic procedures, and if we will perform oral surgery, we also check the pet’s blood clotting ability. All pets are on IV fluids, which not only helps keep them stable while under anesthesia, we also have immediate access to a vein if we do need to use emergency medications. At all times, the pet is being monitored both with equipment and a veterinary technician. Considering the tremendous risk to health by dental disease-related conditions, and the pain that diseased teeth cause, we feel that the risk of anesthesia is much less than that of NOT performing the procedure.

Related to the fear of anesthesia is the rise of “anesthesia-free” dentals. This practice is considered dangerous by the American Veterinary Dental College for many reasons. While superficial tartar is scaled away, there is no scaling under the gumline, which is where most of our disease is occurring. The teeth might look white and pretty, but the disease process continues. These procedures also do not include polishing, so the plaque and tartar build up more quickly since little “grooves” have been made in the teeth. I’ve seen several cases where soon after an “anesthesia-free” cleaning, the pet has a nasty tooth abscess that requires a full COHAT. For more information on the risks of anesthesia-free, please see http://avdc.org/.

In honor of Dental Health Month, Young’s is offering 10% off the price of a COHAT and our at-home dental care products. Any pet receiving a COHAT will be entered into a raffle to win a basket of goodies! If you’d like to make an appointment please click youngsanimalhospital.com. We look forward to helping you keep your pet’s mouth happy!

Angela Bockelman, PhD, DVM