As a currently practicing veterinarian of a month shy of thirty-eight years by the time this goes to print, one could only imagine the array of things I have seen related to my job over that amount of time. Oddly, one might think that by now I might have the right to say that “I’ve seen it all”, but the reality is that I still haven’t. In fact, just yesterday as of this writing, I had the terrible misfortune of making a diagnosis in an older sweet as could possibly be Golden Retriever with an ailment that presented in a way that I had never seen before in all my thirty-eight years. But the owner of that dog knew there was a serious problem by the dog’s obvious symptoms, and as such sought to relieve the dog’s distress. The point here is that the owner RECOGNIZED that there was a problem, and set out to address it.
I’m not really sure what the percentage is of pets with dental/oral disease that walk into our practice daily, but short of the dogs and cats a year or so old and younger, it probably approximates a hundred percent. Of course there are varying degrees of this, but put in perspective, no dogs or cats brush their teeth, and few ever get their teeth brushed. Again, put in perspective, dogs and cats are very similar to us as pertains to oral biology and physiology. For those of us who still have teeth or at least have a few left, think what it might be like to forego brushing for a year or so. How about four or five years, or better yet ten or eleven years? Few people ever come in for a “check teeth” type of office call. It does happen, and when it does happen there is usually something VERY profound happening that the owner has sensed. The fact is, most people have absolutely no idea what may be going on in their pet’s mouth. And what they don’t know won’t hurt THEM. But it IS creating a daily, agonizing existence for their beloved pet, which continues to get worse over time.
Most people that come into my office do so because they are concerned for the welfare of their pet. They come in for vaccines that guard them from serious contagious organisms… they come in because they are limping and it seems to hurt… they come in to show me a new lump that has been growing on the skin… they come in because the pet is shaking his head or scratching at his ear…they come in because the pet is having trouble getting up from a laying down position and he seems to be in pain…they come in because his eye is tearing and he’s squinting and it looks like it hurts…they come in because he’s yelping in pain because he probably reinjured his back…they come in because he was just in a fight with another dog and he has wounds and he’s hurt…they come in because he got into a fight days ago, and now the wounds look infected and it hurts. It goes on and on and you get the idea. They come in because they want to take the steps necessary to prevent pain and suffering, they come in to address things that they perceive as creating possible pain and suffering, and they come in to address things that absolutely without a doubt are creating pain and suffering. How then can any well meaning pet owner disregard the gravity of dental and periodontal disease?
Well, I personally think that most pet owners have no idea that there is real trouble lurking behind those cute furry lips. This is easily understandable as their pets just don’t have the ability to communicate the degree of agony they are going through in every waking moment. And for those of you who think that their pet is in no oral distress because “…he’s still eating…”, it holds no water. Dogs and cats are survivors. What choice do they have?
Dental and periodontal disease is a serious, pathologic, painful, and potentially debilitating disease process. For those of us who can relate and empathize, imagine how in spite of the fact that someone may brush his or her teeth a couple of times a day (or more), floss daily, and perhaps throw in a good rinse or two a day with an antiseptic mouthwash, many still end up with gingivitis, deep pockets around their teeth, gum resorption, tooth resorption, bone resorption, and varying degrees of infection. Now throw in a cavity or two, and you’ve got the makings of a really fun day…after day…after day.
Are dogs and cats any different? Well…yes. They eat dog and cat food, trash the garbage now and then, ingest their own stools now and then, and not infrequently drink from the toilet. They don’t brush their teeth, they don’t floss, and they generally don’t rinse with antiseptic mouth wash….for years on end. As opposed to humans, what they end up with would boggle your imagination. And the consequences, in addition to the obvious, can result in bacteria circulating throughout the body resulting in kidney disease, liver disease and/or a condition known as bacterial endocarditis, where the heart valves become infected and distort whereby they fail to function properly, resulting in eventual heart failure. Pathologic jaw fractures can occur when infection destroys the bone to such an extent that the bone becomes so weak that one good attempt at a bite into something results in splitting of the jaw.
Loose and rotten teeth need to go. Too many animals come in for dental care, and owners specify that they do not want any teeth extracted! Animals do not chew with loose, rotten, infected teeth barely set in softened infected bone. And quite frankly, the only way for any hope to clear the infection in the jaw will only come once the loose teeth are extracted and the tissue debrided as well as possible. I’d like to pass on a quote from Dr. Fraser Hale, a board certified veterinary dentist currently residing in Ontario, Canada. In response to another veterinarian in a thread on a professional web site whereby the veterinarian was expressing dismay over the fact that a client would not let him extract loose and decaying teeth, Dr. Hale replied “Domestic dogs DON’T NEED TEETH! Their food is already dead and in the bowl ready to be swallowed.” That pretty much sums it up. Of course, the same holds true for cats. I tell people all the time…dogs and cats can chew far better with healthy gums than they ever could with rotten teeth.
Can pets be successfully treated for this painful, debilitating disease? More often than not, the answer is yes. The problem is that, also more often than not, by the time we get to see many of these animals, they are of an advanced age and may be under anesthesia for several hours in many cases because of the extensive work that needs to take place. Nevertheless, most do extremely well, and the results are most rewarding. Many pet owners will report back to us to tell us how happy and lively their pets are acting since having their mouths cleaned up and rendered pain free. Even better however is the fact that the advanced form of oral disease can be prevented by having your pet’s mouth examined and teeth cleaned regularly. This will minimize disease and prevent the need for lengthy anesthesia.
In closing, I will tell you once again that dogs and cats will never complain about serious oral discomfort.
Rarely, cats with a severe form of an immune mediated disease resulting in severe inflammation of their entire oral cavity, known as feline stomatitis, get so sore that they will refuse to eat. But in general, dogs and cats with serious oral disease will all suffer in silence. That is very sad. What is even worse is that they don’t have to.