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Doggie, Doggie, Open Wide

Aug. 1, 2002
When you schedule your patients' next dental visit, don't forget to suggest the same for their four-legged, furry family members. They need dental care, too!

by Gayle Lawrence, RDH

When you schedule your patients' next dental visit, don't forget to suggest the same for their four-legged, furry family members. They need dental care, too!

The author poses below with her four-legged friends, Mel and Genevieve.
Click here to enlarge image

The next time you schedule your kids for a recall appointment and dental visit, don't forget about your other kids - you know, those four-legged, furry family members that give you unconditional love and devotion! They also need routine dental exams and oral-health care.

The general pet-owning public often is not aware of how dental disease can cause serious problems in a pet's overall health. Dental care often takes a back seat to exercise, good nutrition, and grooming. But, according to the American Veterinary Dental Society (AVDS), oral disease is the most frequently-diagnosed health problem for pets. In fact, periodontal disease is the number one dental problem in dogs and cats, and it affects nearly 80 percent of animals over three years of age.

As dental hygienists, we are acutely aware of the negative effects that dental disease can cause in human beings. Pets also suffer when dental neglect allows plaque and calculus to lead to gingivitis. If left untreated, gingivitis can turn into severe periodontal disease and tooth loss. Teeth also can become decayed, contributing to bad breath and eventual tooth loss, not to mention the pain that the animal may experience, but is unable to communicate to us. And, just as with human beings, animals are subject to other complications when the bacteria from untreated dental problems travels into the pet's bloodstream, where it may potentially cause damage to the heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs.

As a dental hygienist and life-long pet owner, I am very committed to monitoring the oral-health care of both of my "furry, feline children" - Genevieve, the somewhat aloof princess, and my Siamese "lap-kitty," Mr. Mel. So, with the approval and supervision of my veterinarian, Dr. Mark Hoverstock, and veterinary technician, Pam Bartley, at Spring Meadow Veterinary Clinic, I was allowed to assist in a complete dental screening, scaling, prophylaxis, and fluoride treatment for my two dear little angels in fur.

Mel gets his teeth cleaned by Dr. Mark Hoverstock and vet technian Pam Bartley
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Since dogs and cats won't usually sit in a dental chair and "open wide for us," the use of a quick onset, short-lasting general anesthetic is necessary to examine and treat the oral cavity. I discovered that the dental exam and periodontal evaluation in pets are basically the same type of procedures that I follow with my human patients.

A thorough dental exam for a pet begins with charting teeth at four to five weeks of age. By six to seven months of age, all of a dog's 42 permanent teeth have erupted. Kittens have 26 deciduous teeth that begin to erupt when they are two-to-three weeks old. All 30 of a cat's permanent teeth usually are fully erupted by six months of age.

Periodontal probing - using a Class I, II, and III mobility index and a Class I, II, III, and IV grading system - is utilized to detect and classify periodontal disease. To remove obvious plaque and calculus, scaling is done with either hand instruments, ultrasonic scalers, or high-speed handpieces with pear-shaped and pointed polishing burs. A rubber cup and pumice polish follows the scaling, and often a topical fluoride is painted on the animal's teeth. Periodontal surgery may be necessary if probing indicates deep periodontal pockets. Dental X-rays, extractions, root-canal therapy, or restorative treatment also may be suggested. As a precaution, the veterinarian might prescribe an antibiotic for several days following the pet's appointment to guard against any residual bacterial infection.

Caring for your pet's teeth

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Pet owners in general - and especially those of us who are hygienists - should maintain a regular home-care dental routine for their pets. Beginning this care when a pet is young is the ideal, but with patience, gentleness - and by proceeding slowly - older dogs and cats can get used to a dental home-care program.

Visual exam: Examine the face and head for asymmetry, swelling, or discharges. Lift the lips and examine facial/buccal surfaces of teeth, oral mucosa, and attached gingiva. As your pet becomes comfortable with this, try to open the mouth to examine lingual/palatal surfaces of teeth, gums, and tongue.

Brushing: Fortunately, pets do not accumulate plaque and calculus quite as rapidly as we humans do. Veterinarians recommend brushing your pet's teeth two- to-three times a week to help eliminate deposit buildup. To introduce your pet to brushing, wrap gauze around your finger and use it like a toothbrush on the teeth. Do this until your pet becomes comfortable with having its teeth and gums rubbed. Gradually, progress to a small, soft toothbrush and plain water, and just brush front, easily accessible teeth, such as the canine/cuspids. As the pet begins to accept this, move to the premolars and, eventually ,if possible, the molars in the posterior of the mouth. Use plenty of petting and praise, keeping in mind that animals also can have a dental stress level just like our human patients! Never use "human toothpaste," since it may upset your pet's stomach, but rather, use a special pet toothpaste available from your veterinarian or pet store. Most veterinary clinics carry a full line of pet dental-care products, specially-designed toothbrushes, finger toothbrushes, animal dentifrices in various flavors, and oral-hygiene sprays with and without fluoride.

Professional dental care: If you notice stains, plaque, calculus formation, or red inflamed gums during a pet dental exam at home, make an appointment for a complete dental screening. As a good rule of thumb, you might consider a yearly visual dental exam and general physical checkup for your pet with your veterinarian.

Diet: As we know, diet is a major factor in the development of plaque and calculus buildup on human teeth, and this also is true for pets as well. An exclusive diet of canned pet food - which is soft and sticky - can contribute to periodontal disease. Feeding your pet an unmoistened, dry crunchy pet food and offering hard biscuits or pet treats after meals provide an abrasive, self-cleansing action as they chew. This helps keep plaque to a minimum on the crown of each tooth.

Implementing and regularly following a simple, dental home-care routine can help prevent dental disease and ensure a long, healthy life for your pet. As a dental hygienist/oral-health-care professional and pet owner, I feel a responsibility to educate the people that I know about the importance of regular, professional dental care for their pets. I would ask that you, too, make that same commitment to your own circle of "pet-owning friends and family" to ensure that their pets have a lifetime of happy, healthy smiles!

My own furry little family members, Genevieve and Mr. Mel, were model patients during their professional dental checkups. But being raised by a dental hygienist, they do have a very high dental IQ. Dr. Hoverstock and Pam were quite impressed. But still ... I think it really, really helped just having "mom" there to hold their paw!

Looking for the signs in pets … sound familiar?

Some obvious signs and symptoms of a pet with dental problems are:

  • Persistent bad breath
  • Sensitivity around the mouth
  • Pawing at the mouth
  • Loss of appetite (If infected gums or teeth are causing pain, your pet may not eat.)
  • Loose, missing, or infected teeth; bleeding, inflamed gums; obvious calculus deposits.

    Gayle Lawrence, RDH, recently relocated to Florida from Ohio. She also manages her own travel company, Journeys of Discovery. For information about trips she sponsors, Lawrence can be reached at [email protected] or through her Web site at