Dental Disease

by Shawn Finch, DVM

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If you secured granulated sugar to a Beagle’s tooth, even then he would not develop a cavity.  First of all, who does these studies??  And second of all, I do not know, and I do not have a reference for you because it is one of those weird details I remember from veterinary school fifteen years ago.  My teacher’s point (I think) was that dental disease in dogs is different than dental disease in people.

Good news, right?

Yes, kinda.

Dogs really do not develop cavities very often.  However, they do develop dental issues that may lead to pain, infection and tooth loss. Dental disease in dogs starts with gingivitis.  Plaque develops, which leads to tartar and periodontal ligament damage, which can lead to tooth loss, and more importantly, pain.

Big Stupid Medical Words

gingivitis – inflamed gums (gingiva).  Healthy canine gums are a beautiful pink color (or maybe black if you are a beautiful Chow Chow or Chow mix), diseased gums are red (if they started out pink, that is) and often swollen, especially at the gum line – the area where the gums meet the teeth.

plaque – mouth slime

tartar – calcified mouth slime, synonym = calculus

periodontal ligament – the connective tissue around the perimeter of every tooth.  A healthy periodontal ligament will hold the tooth root tight in the mouth and come up almost to the gum line.  Plaque can break down the periodontal ligament, causing pain and making the tooth loose.

gingival sulcus – measurement in millimeters (tiny!) of the distance between the gum line and the start of the periodontal ligament.  During a dental cleaning under anesthesia, the depth of the gingival sulcus of every tooth is measured around the entire tooth.  A deep gingival sulcus is an indication that the periodontal ligament of that tooth may be unhealthy.

Of course you do not have a gingival sulcus measurement tool!  And even if you did, I would not want you to use it to measure the gingival sulci of your awake dog!  Gingival sulcus measurement tools are pokey.

How to Determine if Your Dog Has Dental Disease

He does.  Every dog develops dental disease over time.  Baby teeth are lost between four and six months of age and adult teeth erupt.  Dental disease is visibly apparent by the time most dogs are young adults.  Small dogs and Greyhounds develop dental disease more rapidly than other dogs.  (Sorry Nigel!  If you are true to your breed in this respect, and do indeed struggle with dental disease, know that I still think you are perfect!)

In fact, though in the medical notes I will, of course, grade the dental disease of each patient and describe their oral health in appropriate medical terms, I have been known to say, “Wow, his mouth is a bit poodly.”

How to Determine if Your Dog Has Dental Disease

If your dog is comfortable with a mouth check, gently pull the corners of his lips back until you can see his great big upper tooth.

One More Big Stupid Medical Word

Carnassial Tooth – the largest tooth in the mouth of a canine.  Each dog has two carnassial teeth on the top (the fourth premolar on each side, “P4,” right in front of the last two teeth, the smaller two molars) and two carnassial teeth on the bottom (the first molar on each side, “M1,” right in front of the smaller second and third molars).  The top carnassial teeth tend to develop the most tartar of all of the teeth.

Check the gums and the outer surface of all of the top and bottom teeth on both sides.  Plaque is clear, and may be difficult to see.  Tartar is easy to see.  It is that hardened, rough brown or yellow material on the surface of the teeth, concentrated most heavily at the gumline.  A quick check of the upper carnassial teeth will give you a good indication of the severity of your pet’s disease.

If your dog is especially tolerant of your oral exam, gently feel along the gum lines for any painful areas.

Do Not Get Bit!

Even the most patient dog is not going to love having his mouth checked, but especially not if it hurts!  Go slowly and skip the exam all together if you think your dog is not as excited about his oral health as you and I are.

Less Invasive Oral Health Check

Get down really close to your dog’s face, especially if he is panting and…smell his breath!

What Now?

To the vet’s!  We have all sorts of treatments for early dental disease – plaque and gingivitis, including oral rinses, tooth brushing and chewies.  More advanced dental disease usually warrants a dental examination and dental cleaning done under anesthesia.  If needed, dental x-rays and extractions can be done while your pet is anesthetized.

What’s Next…

If you would like, I would sure dedicate an entire post to all that is involved in the veterinary side of canine dental care.  Because dental disease is progressive, often it is the older pets who need their teeth cleaned and treated under anesthesia.

The biggest upside to dental care is pain avoidance and treatment.  Just last month, my friend’s fifteen year old Poodle started playing like a pup again after having a dental cleaning and several extractions done.  This is always an indication to me that the mouth was probably painful pretreatment.

The downside to veterinary dental care, of course, is that a thorough examination and treatment of advanced dental disease can only be done under general anesthesia.  Anesthesia can be done with minimal risk, and is almost always worth the benefits of your pet’s improved dental health.

May your pups always be as healthy and happy as pups, and may they enjoy a long, halitosis-free life of optimal dental health!

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