Caring for your dog's teeth

There are several main areas to consider when caring for the 48 adult teeth in your dog’s mouth – good nutrition and natural remedies, regular brushing and veterinary cleaning.

When Patty’s elderly dog became lethargic and lost his appetite, she feared he had developed cancer or heart disease. As it turned out, the problem was in Zen’s mouth – he had severe gingivitis and a bad tooth that was causing him a lot of pain and discomfort. Patty had avoided having Zen’s teeth cleaned because she was nervous about the procedure. But when she saw how quickly he bounced back to his usual energetic self after some dental work, she realized how important canine oral health is.

Just like humans, dogs regularly develop plaque and tartar on their teeth. If these deposits are not removed, they lead to periodontal disease, which has become the most common clinical condition diagnosed in dogs.

If left untreated, progressive periodontal disease can lead to bad breath (halitosis), bleeding gums, loose and eventually lost teeth, and even degradation of the jaw bone itself. Bacteria from the mouth can also enter the bloodstream, causing systemic problems. Studies have shown that oral bacteria can cause pathologic changes in the kidneys, liver and heart.

Fortunately, periodontal disease is preventable with proper oral healthcare, and dental cleaning should be a routine part of the plan. Performed at your veterinary clinic under general anesthesia, this prophylactic treatment is now one of the most common procedures performed on healthy dogs. If you’ve put off having your dog’s teeth cleaned because you feel uneasy or anxious about it, this article should put your mind at rest.

1. The first step

Most dental cleanings begin with a brief oral exam before the actual cleaning begins. As your vet looks into your dog’s mouth, s/he will evaluate the extent of periodontal disease based on how inflamed the gums are and the amount of tartar buildup on the teeth. The vet will also look for any obvious signs of disease, or any problem areas you might have noticed yourself.

2. “Does he have to be put under?”

A complete and thorough oral exam cleaning cannot be done unless the dog is under general anesthesia. For many people, this is the most common cause for anxiety, but it is imperative for a proper, safe and thorough procedure. Advances in veterinary medicine over the past few decades have made general anesthesia very safe, and the increased use of extensive monitoring equipment makes it a highly controlled and closely observed practice. The veterinarian will usually perform routine blood tests in order to evaluate internal organ function before the dog is placed under general anesthesia.

3. An in-depth exam

Once your dog has been placed under general anesthesia, your veterinarian will take another look inside his mouth, this time for a much more detailed exam. She will use a sterilized stainless steel periodontal probe to explore under the gum line around each tooth, checking for deep pockets, gingival recession, and signs of tooth decay. Intraoral dental radiography is also sometimes used, depending on the equipment available at the clinic, to more thoroughly evaluate the underlying tooth and bone structure.

4. Time to clean

After completing the exam and charting the findings, the actual teeth cleaning will begin. Firstly, large accumulations of calculus are removed from the surface of each tooth. After this is done, an instrument called a scaler is used to further remove the plaque and tartar that binds closely to the tooth’s outer enamel surface. Plaque is the sticky film formed by oral bacteria that helps them adhere to the surface of a tooth. Tartar is formed when minerals in the saliva combine with plaque, forming hard deposits (calculus) on the teeth. Tartar can be seen on the tooth surface, while plaque cannot. Both ultrasonic scalers and hand currettes are used for this part of the cleaning. These tools are exactly like the ones used in a human dentist’s office.

5. Dealing with deeper disease

While supragingival tartar (above the gum line) causes inflammation of the adjacent gingiva, the real damage happens below the gum line, or subgingivally. There, the bacterial infection results in degradation of the periodontal ligament (the structure that holds the tooth in place) and bone surrounding the tooth. This is called attachment loss. Without intervention, progressive attachment loss results in tooth loss. Radiographs are used to assess the degree of attachment loss and guide the treatment of periodontal disease.

6. Polish and rinse

After scaling, the teeth are polished. Although many people believe this is done strictly for cosmetic purposes, polishing actually removes the microscopic scratches that result from scaling. This smooths the enamel surface so that plaque is less adherent.

The mouth is then thoroughly rinsed with water and the spaces between the gums and crowns of the teeth are irrigated with a disinfectant solution. A topical application of a fluoride product to prevent plaque buildup is then usually applied to the newly cleaned teeth.

7. All done!

After the dog’s mouth is irrigated, cleaned and dried, he is ready to wake up and recover from anesthesia. After the endotracheal tube has been removed (the device that delivers the inhalant anesthesia), the dog is placed in a quiet, clean kennel where he will slowly regain consciousness. Anesthetic recovery is closely monitored and the dog is kept warm in a quiet environment for several hours prior to discharge.

8. Follow-up and aftercare

When you pick your dog up, your vet will go over his/her findings during the exam and cleaning as well as offer you tips to help keep your dog’s teeth clean at home, which will include brushing with a pet toothbrush and animal toothpaste (not human toothpaste) three times weekly.

When you bring your dog home, he may still be a little unsteady for the rest of the day and his mouth may be tender. Follow your veterinarian’s advice for aftercare and if you have any questions or concerns, remember to call the clinic rather than wait and see.

Keeping your dog’s teeth and gums in good condition should be a big part of his overall preventative healthcare plan. A healthy mouth is a major step in maintaining a healthy, happy dog.