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How can dental disease affect my pet?

Dental disease is far more common than most people realise - in fact, most studies show that 70% of dogs and cats aged over 3 years have some degree of dental health problem. However, hidden away behind their lips, it isn’t always easy to see how bad it is - or what else it’s causing. In this blog, then, we’re going to look at dental disease in dogs and cats, and the serious harm that untreated tartar, gingivitis and periodontitis can cause.

Informative image: dog teeth

What is dental disease?

The chances are, when we talk about “dental disease”, you’re imagining cavities. In humans, erosion of the outer enamel coating of the teeth does indeed cause cavities, or dental caries; however, this is less common in pets.

Instead, we see a very characteristic development of firstly plaque - a mix of food, saliva, and dead skin cells - on the teeth. Over time, if not removed (and chew treats or special diets alone are NOT sufficient), this develops into tartar - a thick, mineralised brown stain. However, the tartar or plaque you can see isn’t the problem - it’s the plaque growing below the gum line that’s the problem (and it’s this bit that chews etc can’t get to). Here, the bacteria grow, and the gum becomes more and more swollen and inflammed in response - we call this gingivitis. Eventually, the ligaments holding the teeth into their sockets start to break down, a condition called periodontitis or periodontal disease.

How does this impact my pet’s health?

Once the ligaments are weakened enough, the tooth starts to wobble, making it uncomfortable or even painful to eat - and eventually, of course, the tooth may even fall out. However, usually before that happens, the weakened ligaments allow bacteria to penetrate down to the root of the tooth, where they set up a severe infection called a tooth root abscess.

This is acutely painful, as pus builds up in the bone socket. Affected animals are often unwilling to eat, may have a fever, and severe facial pain. Sometimes, they cannot even drink.

So if they’re eating OK then they’re fine?

Unfortunately not! Most cats, and quite a lot of dogs, are very good at hiding dental pain - hunger wins out until the very final stages. So they may seem to be eating really well, but have horrific dental problems.

In addition, of course, dental disease can also lead to heart, liver and kidney disease, and possibly even arthritis and septicaemia as well.

How can a bad tooth affect all those other organs?

The barrier between “outside” and “inside” is normally pretty solid. However, if a tissue becomes inflamed enough, bacteria can penetrate and enter the bloodstream. In gingivitis, this occurs, leading to bacteraemia where bacteria start swimming around the bloodstream. Of course, the immune system doesn’t want that, and responds, sometimes violently, to their presence. The result varies from dog to dog, cat to cat. In some cases, the bacteria may survive the onslaught, and go on to infect internal organs - especially the heart, causing endocarditis. In the most severe cases, they may defeat the immune system, leading to septicaemia.

However, even if the immune system wins the battle, it sets up what we call a “pro-inflammatory state”. This can lead to immune proteins damaging vulnerable tissues - like the blood vessels in the kidney (contributing to kidney failure) or liver (a possible cause of hepatitis), or the synovial tissues in the joints (causing arthritis).

What can be done about it?

Essentially, good dental care! Remove the plaque and tartar BEFORE gingivitis develops, and the problems never arise! You can help with tooth-brushing at home, but most pets need occasional full dental examinations and either scaling and polishing (just like the dental hygienist does for us) or full treatment (removal of infected teeth, for example). That’s what we offer here in the practice!

If you’re worried about your pet’s teeth, or maybe you just want them checked out - make an appointment to see one of our vets (FREE until 31st March!). We even have a special offer on dental work in March - so talk to us to get your pet’s smile healthy now!

We will also be offering a 15% discount off dental procedures (to be booked by 30th April) for those animals on our Pet Health Care Scheme (includes both animals already on the scheme and new joiners).