VET’S DIARY: Brush up on hygiene as pets have toothache too

A daily dental routine is important for dogs.
A daily dental routine is important for dogs.

Dental disease is perhaps the most common affliction vets have to deal with in our small animal patients, writes Paul Freeman.

It is also a ‘hidden’ disease, as cats and dogs are remarkably stoical in putting up with pain, inflammation and infection in their mouths.There is no reason to think that they don’t suffer dental pain in the same way that we humans do, because the number and arrangement of the sensory nerves in the mouths of dogs and cats is remarkably similar to our own.

I have lost count of the number of cases in which the owner has told me that their pet has had a ‘new lease of life’ after having a dental procedure, because the animal is no longer having to put up with the debilitating discomfort caused by bad teeth and inflamed gums. All too often, owners have no idea what is going on in their pet’s mouth, because they don’t look too closely. It is sometimes only when their pet’s bad breath becomes intolerable that they seek our advice, and are then horrified when we lift the pet’s lip or open its mouth to show how bad the teeth and gums are.

A case in point that I saw a few weeks ago was a six-year-old terrier called Bob. His owner had brought him in to see me for his annual vaccination and health check. Examination of the teeth is part of this routine check, and it was clear to me straight away that Bob had a problem. His breath wasn’t the sweetest and he resented me lifting his top lip to examine his teeth, particularly on one side.

Outwardly, he appeared healthy and had a good appetite, but his owner did remark that Bob’s halitosis had got worse recently, and he did not seem as playful as he had been. The client was shocked when I showed him the extent of the inflammation in Bob’s gums, and the way the gums had receded to expose some tooth roots. An appointment was made the next day for Bob to be admitted to have the necessary dental work done.

Bob duly arrived at 9am the next day. As instructed, he had not been fed that morning, in readiness for his general anaesthetic. He was given a sedative pre-med injection and installed in his comfortable heated kennel. When his turn came to be anaesthetised, he proved to be an excellent patient, and sat very still on the table while the intravenous anesthetic drug was injected.

He drifted into unconsciousness and an endotracheal tube was immediately passed down his windpipe and then connected to the gas anaesthetic machine. I then set to with the ultrasonic de-scaler, removing all the plaque and hard brown tartar from Bob’s teeth. The peri-odontal disease had caused the gums to recede severely around four teeth, allowing rotten food to collect around the tooth roots. These four teeth were beyond redemption, so had to be removed with the aid of dental elevators and an air-turbine dental machine. The remaining 38 teeth were then polished.

Bob was back on his feet within half an hour of the end of the procedure. He went home three hours later, after his owner had been shown how to clean his teeth with meat-flavoured canine dental paste. This daily routine is by far the most effective way to stop peri-odontal disease, and most dogs and even cats will accept this and even come to enjoy it.

I remember my old collie would come and sit beside me when I was brushing my own teeth, and would not let me out of the bathroom until I had done hers as well!

I saw Bob again last week, and was pleased to see that his gingivitis had disappeared, his halitosis had gone and his teeth were gleaming. But most satisfying was his owner’s comment that Bob seemed much brighter, was back to his old self and was playing like a two-year-old again.