How would you feel if you had never, in your life, brushed your teeth? It has been estimated that 80% of dogs and cats over 6 years of age have gingivitis or some other sort of dental disease.
Lack of dental care means more than bad breath and that feeling of having “furry” teeth. Build-up of tartar and bacteria around the tooth and in the gingival pocket causes a veritable cesspool from which the blood stream drains infection. These bacteria may go to all organs of the body and cause serious infections including abscesses in the liver, kidney and even on the heart valves. This may lead to organ failure or the classic leaky heart that many of our older pets get. Some of these conditions may be life threatening; this is why dental care is much more than a cosmetic concern.
If your pet has bad breath, tooth stains, or even chronic sinusitis in older animals, chances are that s/he has dental disease. Your veterinarian can check oral health during a physical exam and may recommend a dental "scale and polish." Since tartar and calculus cannot be brushed away, ultrasonic scaling, polishing and extractions may be required. A dental necessitates anesthesia because the scaler causes a tickling and warming sensation on the tooth and animals won’t lie still for this. Subgingival curettage (tartar removal under the gums) as well as extractions is usually painful and mostly essential during dental procedures. It is often impossible to know how many teeth require extraction before the tartar is removed thus revealing the true nature of what lies beneath the stony infected mortar, often the only thing holding the teeth still in the mouth in some unfortunate individuals.
Although all anaesthetics do carry some risk, the modern anaesthetics available today when used correctly have very little side effects compared to what used to set the trend of old. If your animal is old or has existing organ disease it is safer to have him / her dripped during the procedure. If you are unsure of his / her organ status we can perform a pre-anaesthetic blood test to check if the organs are working efficiently or are in need of some assistance.
Preventative measures are particularly important for ongoing dental health. Many veterinarians recommend tooth brushing, mouthwashes, and special tartar control diets. Most also recommend dry commercial diets. Many of these protocols are not accepted by the pets or practical for the owners. Holistic veterinarians have found that dry diets often don’t help the teeth and may contribute to other problems. Although much better than the sticky tin food that clings to the cracks and grooves in and between the teeth, dry food is actually just hard enough to lodge under the gums and provide the perfect breeding ground for tartar causing bacteria. Think of it this way--if your dentist recommended daily granola and pretzels to scrape the tartar away, would you believe it?
One of the best dental health measures for animals is a regular treat of raw meat either minced or in chunks which is even better. Although this may surprise you, tough cuts such as stew beef and chuck steaks actually contain large amounts of connective tissue that act like dental floss! Raw organic or free range chicken wings are a favourite amongst cats and small breed dogs. Very loose teeth in small dogs have been observed to become tighter in their sockets, and raw meat also seems to help scrape some tartar away. Holistic veterinarians can be very helpful in advising pet owners on how to use raw meat and raw bones safely as part of a controlled natural diet. Remember NEVER GIVE DOGS OR CATS COOKED BONES, they are brittle and do not digest easily. They can clog the gut causing obstructions or pierce the gut causing peritonitis. Although most dogs accept raw meat readily, training your dog or cat to tolerate tooth brushing may be challenging and in some cases dangerous.
Raw hide chews, hooves and natural tendon chew sticks are also very useful at keeping dogs teeth clean and provide hours of entertainment and fun.
In cases of severe gingivitis or periodontitis there are several herbs and tinctures that can be safely used to help heal the mouth along side dental extractions, scaling and polishing. Yarrow, comfrey, hypericum and calendula herbs are particularly indicated if there have been extractions or if the gums are bleeding a lot. Cloves are good for general toothache. Homeopathic remedies such as Mercurius solubilis, Hepar Sulph and Phytolacca are often indicated in painful, infected and ulcerated mouths. Homeopathic Phosphorus and Hammamelis help to stop bleeding. Hypericum, Symphytum and Arnica in homeopathic potency are very good for helping as pain relief after dental extractions. Other natural remedies such as propolis, myrrh, aloe ferrox and Co-enzyme Q10 are also useful in gingivitis and stomatitis. Sage leaves, wild strawberries, lemon peel and parsley keep the teeth clean and the gums strong and can be added to the dog’s daily diet in small quantities rotating them to add variety.
There are many ways to tackle bad breath. Choose the ones that suit you and your pets the best and always ask advice from your pets health giver, your Veterinarian. It is a good idea to have regular dental checks, every 6-12 months. This may be done at the annual health check in young animals and bi-annual health check in older animals.
Dr. Anuska Viljoen BVSc(Hons) VetMFHom MRCVS