Dr. Hilary Quinn: Dental Care Is Something Pet Owners Should Sink Their Teeth Into | Four-Legged Friends and More

One of my favorite veterinary-related online memes is a picture of a chunky pug with the caption, “Just like his wolf ancestors, my dog has three beds and takes a medication for his thyroid condition.”

I’m often reminded of this when I’m recommending dental care for my patients.

I can’t count the number of times I have made the recommendation for a dental cleaning, and my client responds with, “I’ve had dogs all my life and they never had dentals.  Why would they need one now?” 

Or, “I don’t know, aren’t they descended from wolves? Wolves don’t get dental cleanings, doc.” 

You’re right! Wolves in the wild certainly don’t get routine physical examinations, pre-op labwork, and anesthetized dental x-rays and cleanings.

They also only live, on average, 6-8 years in the wild, and we aim for much longer than that with our fluffy friends sitting on the couch next to us.

Despite the pet food branding that is currently in vogue, pet dogs are not wolves, and cats are not small lions (though they may believe otherwise). So what does this mean for their dental health?

Dogs and cats, like us, need regular oral examinations to assess their teeth, gums, and oral cavity. Roughly 80% of dogs and 70% of cats over the age of 3 years have some degree of periodontal disease.

That bad breath you smell when little Bella is giving you kisses? That’s Eu de Germs.

Bacteria that accumulate on the crown, or visible portion of the tooth, will migrate under the gum-line and eventually affect the tooth roots and surrounding bone. Over time, the tooth can become loose, or a tooth root abscess can develop.

The problem is that dogs and cats are too stoic for their own good. Even with a mouth full of infected teeth, they will continue to eat their normal meals.

If you pay attention, you may notice that the way they pick up the food in their mouth is different, or perhaps they chew more on one side than another, but dental health almost never results in loss of appetite.

It absolutely does, however, result in pain and quiet suffering. Just as we feel the acute throb of a tooth that needs a root canal, dogs and cats have the same pain in a broken or diseased tooth.

“What about those non-anesthetic dentals I’ve been hearing so much about, doc?”

Trust me, if we could safely and effectively perform a dental cleaning and probing without anesthesia, we would. The problem with non-anesthetic dentals is that you simply cannot thoroughly examine, probe, clean, scale, polish or humanely extract teeth in a dog or cat that’s awake.

To be able to take dental x-rays, the animal needs to be fully anesthetized – and without x-rays, we can only assess the tip of the iceberg. So, at best, non-anesthetic dentals lead to a false sense of security about your pet’s oral health.

At worst, it can lead to actual harm.

You may be wondering what you can do to delay the need for an anesthetized dental treatment. I recommend that you brush your dog’s or cat’s teeth daily, using a soft bristle toothbrush and a veterinary-labeled toothpaste. 

You can also give dental chews, but make sure you are giving treats that are appropriate and effective for removing plaque. For a complete list of acceptable treats, please visit the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s website at VOHC.org.

Make sure that you aren’t giving chew toys that are too hard, such as real bones (raw or cooked) or antlers. Too many times I’ve found myself extracting a fractured carnassial tooth from a Labrador with otherwise gorgeous teeth.

Hopefully, I have convinced you of the benefits of a comprehensive oral health and treatment plan. It is my job as a veterinarian, and your job as a pet owner, to advocate for our live-in wolves and lions when they cannot speak for themselves.

Dr. Hilary Quinn is a small animal veterinarian in Santa Barbara. She owns and operates Wilder Animal Hospital, and shares her own home with three humans (her husband and two kids) as well as two rowdy dogs, a very calm kitty, two fish, and six chickens. Contact her at [email protected]


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