Gingivitis and dental disease is one of the most common problems plaguing dogs today. In fact, according to a study by the American Veterinary Dental Society, as many as 80% of dogs have symptoms of gum and dental disease by the time they are three years old. Studies have also shown that dental problems can contribute to an array of other health problems, making it one of the most prevalent, but also most treatable medical conditions.
Dogs have 42 permanent, adult teeth in their mouths, and just like people, they need regular attention and maintenance to keep their mouths healthy. Because dogs are unable to brush, floss and care for their own teeth, they rely on you to help prevent and treat dental problems.
There are an array of different problems that can arise in your dogs mouth, but the most common are issues with the teeth and gums. Periodontal disease will affect almost all dogs at some time in their lives, but all periodontal disease begins when bacteria in the mouth begins to form a layer of plaque on the teeth. This plaque combines with food debris and minerals in the mouth to form tartar, a hard brownish substance which collects on the gum line of the teeth. The gum then reacts to the presence of the tarter by becoming inflamed, developing into gingivitis. If left untreated, this gingivitis will progress, leading to damage of the supporting structures of the tooth, tooth loss, abscesses (pockets of infection) and even bone infections into the surrounding structures. These bacteria in the mouth can also travel to other parts of the body through the bloodstream, causing sepsis and internal organ failure.
The earliest symptom of gingivitis and periodontal disease in dogs is bad breath, known as halitosis. As the disease progresses, so does the severity of symptoms, and affected dogs may begin to avoid chewing hard foods, have excessive drooling, or stop eating due to the pain of their dental problems. In severe cases, a runny nose and sneezing, and swelling along the face may be an indicator of severe infection in the mouth.
A quick glance of your dogs teeth at home may reveal the presence of obvious tartar accumulation, moveable or missing teeth, pus around the gum line or swollen gum tissue. If any of these are present in your dogs mouth than a serious health problem is brewing, and it is important to see your veterinarian quickly to develop a treatment plan.
Treating Dental Disease in Dogs
The best method of treatment of dental disease and gingivitis in dogs is through prevention. Just as in people, the best way of avoiding the development of dental problems is by regular brushing. Performed with either a specially designed dog toothbrush or fingerbrush, regular brushing (3 times a week or more) will greatly reduce the amount of plaque that accumulates on the teeth, thereby curbing tartar development and stopping the formation of gingivitis. Human toothpaste should not be used in dogs as it can cause digestion upsets, but your veterinarian or local pet store can recommend an appropriate toothpaste for use. Although it may take a bit of patience to get your dog accustomed to having his teeth brushed, the health advantages of preventing severe periodontal disease is well worth it.
Unfortunately, often by the time dental problems are discovered, they have progressed too far to be significantly improved with teeth brushing. In these cases, a thorough teeth cleaning and scaling will need to be performed by your veterinarian. Because a proper cleaning and examination of the teeth requires the complete cooperation of the dog, general anesthesia is required to perform a dental cleaning.
Prior to having a dental cleaning, your veterinarian will want to perform a complete physical exam, and may want to have blood work done on your pet to access the health of their organs and examine blood counts. Rest assured that all tests performed prior to the dental cleaning are to ensure the safest anesthetic experience possible for your dog.
Once under anesthesia, your veterinarian will perform a thorough oral examination of the mouth, teeth and gums, checking for abnormal teeth, loose or missing teeth, mouth ulcers, abscesses of the teeth, sites of infection and other problems. Depending on the severity of issues seen in the mouth, your vet may opt to take one or more dental X-rays (like the ones you get at the dentists office!) to further evaluate the teeth, and make sure that more severe problems are not lurking below the surface of the teeth. Dental X-rays can help detect teeth that are abscessed, or have severely compromised root systems, both conditions that may necessitate the extraction of the associated teeth.
In general, the following steps will be taken during your dogs dental cleaning. First, an ultrasonic scaler will be used along the surface of the teeth, as well as below the gum line, to remove accumulated tartar and plaque. After scaling, the teeth are polished to restore a smooth surface, making it more difficult for future bacteria and plaque to adhere to the teeth. The mouth will be flushed with an anti-bacterial solution to help restore a healthy atmosphere, and then if needed, a fluoride treatment may be performed to strengthen the teeth.
Depending on the severity of problems in your dogs mouth, your veterinarian may prescribe a course of antibiotics after the dental cleaning to treat any residual infections.
After a dental cleaning has been performed, once again prevention will play a vital role in avoiding the reoccurrence of gingivitis in your dog. In addition to regular brushing of the teeth, your vet may recommend a special diet or treats for your dog to help keep their teeth clean. Hills Brand Prescription T/D food (available only through your veterinarian) is the only food that has been scientifically proven to reduce tartar on dogs teeth, through specially designed kibble which helps to scrub off tartar forming on the teeth. In addition, there are many commercially available treats and chew toys that may help encourage healthy teeth and gums in your dog, but check with your veterinarian for recommendations.
Despite home care and professional dental cleanings, some dogs are simply more prone to developing gingivitis and dental disease than others. Older dogs and small breed dogs both tend to accumulate tartar more rapidly, and require more aggressive treatment to maintain their oral and overall health.
Dogs with gingivitis and periodontal disease require immediate and aggressive care, as the condition is both very painful, and carries a risk of causing severe internal illness. Bacteria from the mouth are able to travel through the bloodstream, affecting the heart, liver and kidneys. Gingivitis is both preventable and treatable, and a program strong in both home care and professional dental care will help to ensure your dogs life-long dental health.