February is National Pet Dental Health Awareness month. Anyone who has spent any time at Happy Pet knows that we take oral health seriously all the time, not just in February. We spend a lot of time in our exam rooms reviewing the oral health of each pet with their owners: tartar, gingivitis, cracks, fractures, exposed roots, cavities, malocclusion, crowding. All of these things add up to diminished overall wellness, pain, and decreased life expectancies for our furry family members. Studies have shown that a pet who has enjoyed excellent oral health throughout its lifetime lives an average of 5 years longer than one with poor oral health. That takes the average pet from 12 to 17 years old. That' s huge.
I hear it all the time: "Growing up, we never had our pet's teeth cleaned". Perhaps it is better understanding of disease processes that makes us, as veterinarians, stress the importance of oral health to our pet owners. We know that over 70% of pets have significant dental disease by age three. We know that, just as it is with people, dental disease serves as a gateway to "bigger and badder" diseases. The gums and the supportive soft tissues of the teeth and mouth act as a defense line against bacteria. When these structures are weakened by plaque and tartar, the bacteria gain access to the bloodstream and, from there, every other tissue in the body. Infections anywhere in the body including those of the heart, liver, urinary tract, bones are all possible sequelae of dental disease. The bad breath of dental disease is just the tip of the iceberg. And pets don't complain about the bad taste, the trouble chewing, the pain. They just keep on wagging their tales and offering up sour kisses.
There is also the concern about anesthesia. Perhaps more people would have their pets teeth cleaned, if anesthesia wasn't a must. But it is. Dogs have 42 teeth. Cats have 30. All packed in to a space that, in many cases, can't even accommodate a human fist. In our practice, each tooth is first examined on all sides using an explorer, an instrument that probes around the gum line, allowing us to find the periodontal disease that loosens the tooth from the surrounding soft tissues. This disease is often invisible from the surface of the tooth and gum, and only generates obvious wiggling of the tooth once it has destroyed the majority of the attachment ALL the way around the tooth. By then it is too late. This is, in my opinion, one of the most important aspects of a dental assessment and cleaning; a part that is impossible to perform on an awake pet. We then go on to perform dental x-rays, followed by hand scaling, ultrasonic scaling, polishing, and application of a dental sealant. That is too much to ask of an awake pet, no matter what their disposition. We have often said that simply cleaning the crowns of the teeth, the part above the gum line, is akin to putting a fresh coat of paint on a fence: ok unless the wood is rotten. The only way to determine the health of the "wood", is the evaluation that anesthesia provides. There is anesthetic risk inherent to ALL surgical procedures, and this risk must be diligently and thoroughly assessed and managed. In most cases, however, the health risk inherent to dental disease outweighs the risk of anesthesia.
I often hear dental cleanings referred to as "elective procedures". This means that the owner "elects" to put their pet under anesthesia to have the teeth thoroughly assessed and completely cleaned and treated. I often wonder if the same level of infection placed on the pets skin, or in its bladder , or in an ear would still be deemed "elective". Would we ignore the pain, the smell, the toll it takes on our pet? I think not. But somehow, placing the infection behind the lips makes it more ignorable- out of sight, out of mind. This is simply not fair to our pets.
I get it. It's not cheap to have your pet's teeth cleaned. However, it is far less expensive to pursue the dental cleaning BEFORE the disease has gone on so long that you now have to remove teeth. An "average", "uncomplicated" prophy costs around $300 in our practice. This includes everything from the pre-operative bloodwork and anesthesia, through the procedure, to the recheck in which we discuss how to keep your pets teeth healthy. Add in the extra expense of a couple of tooth extractions, which implies extra anesthetic time, nerve blocks, suturing, antibiotics, and the bill can easily double....or worse. But you get what you pay for and your pet gets a tremendous amount of good from it. We are repeatedly told about the differences in pets lives after appropriately managing their dental disease: they are more playful, more social, and eat better, even with fewer teeth!
And, they make better kissers.