Why Proper Dental Care is so Important for our Pets
Teeth cleanings are performed daily in almost every veterinary practice in America. Most people understand the need for proper dental care for their own teeth but don’t necessarily apply the same standard of care to their pets’ dental health. The reality is, cats and dogs have the same dental anatomy and hygiene issues as humans do, and they develop very similar periodontal disease when their teeth are neglected. In fact, their dental disease tends to be much worse than ours because most pet owners do not brush their pet’s teeth and our pets certainly aren’t brushing their own!
The proper name is dental prophylaxis or “prophy” for short; cleaning the teeth is only a small part of the process. The word prophylaxis means prevention, in this case, the prevention of dental disease. There are a number of steps that are included in a thorough dental prophylaxis.
But before it can be done, the veterinary patient must first be placed under general anesthesia. This will greatly increase patient comfort as well as the effectiveness of the cleaning by allowing scaling of the insides of teeth as well as the surfaces below the gum line. This level of cleaning (similar to what your dentist or dental hygienist does) is just not possible on an animal that is awake.
Many pet owners are understandably concerned about the risks of anesthesia. Just as in human medicine, these risks are extremely low nowadays due to the combination of new and improved anesthetic medications, high-quality monitoring equipment, the use of pre-anesthetic blood testing to diagnose underlying health conditions that may put the patient at higher risk, and ongoing continuing education for doctors and staff. (See our Anesthesia Protocol for more detailed information.) Recently, “anesthesia-free” dental has been advertised in grooming salons and other establishments, and have become very popular due to their low cost and speed. Unfortunately, these “cleanings” are very limited and are a cosmetic service at best. Furthermore, in the state of California, it is ILLEGAL to provide this service outside of a veterinary clinic. These “pet hygienists” have no veterinary training whatsoever and may cause more harm than good. There have actually been confirmed cases of fatalities due to broken necks during anesthesia-free cleanings.
When performed by a veterinarian or licensed veterinary technician, you can be assured that your pet’s teeth will not only be cleaned thoroughly, but the entire mouth will be evaluated for tooth decay, broken or worn crowns, infections, oral tumors, and other diseases that affect the oral cavity. General anesthesia facilitates this thorough examination by allowing the use of sharp, delicate curettes and ultrasonic scaling equipment below the gum line of all the teeth in the mouth. It enables the practitioner to safely probe the subgingival tissues, take dental radiographs and biopsies of lesions, perform extractions (if necessary), and remove foreign objects (e.g., pieces of wood, bones, cardboard, foxtails, thread, needles) that may be found wedged between the teeth or embedded in the mouth tissue or gingiva. You would be amazed at the things that have been found in the mouths of dogs and cats!
Ultrasonic scaling and its associated cooling water spray frighten most awake animals, and without anesthesia, the teeth cannot be polished, which decreases the retentive ability for plaque and calculus (like a coral reef, giving the plaque and calculus an easy way to affix itself to the teeth).
A thorough dental prophylaxis includes eight separate steps; these are:
- supragingival scaling (above the gumline),
- subgingival scaling and curettage (below the gum line),
- polishing (to smooth the surfaces thereby limiting the ability of plaque to adhere),
- sulcal lavage (flushing of the pockets beneath the gums with antibacterial solution),
- fluoride treatment (has numerous benefits including antibacterial effects),
- treatment evaluation (thorough examination of the entire oral cavity),
- charting (recording detailed notes in the patient’s permanent medical record), and
- dental radiographs (to evaluate hidden disease).
This is the most common ailment affecting our animal patients today. A dental prophylaxis is a safe and effective way to manage this insidious disease process. With proper pre-anesthetic screening and a safe anesthetic protocol, cats and dogs of any age will benefit from this routine procedure, and in many cases, it may even enhance the quality and length of their lives considerably.