Think of the worst toothache you ever had. Try to remember how it drove you nuts until you finally got the problem taken care of. Now try to remember some other things about the experience. How did the tooth look? Pretty normal, I bet, just like the rest of your teeth. And did it make you stop eating? Doubt it. Maybe you just chewed on a different side, or suffered quietly while you finished dinner. Would your friends and family have known you had a toothache if you didn’t tell them? Probably not. Hold that thought.
Now imagine a dog or cat coming in for an examination. The teeth are crusted with tartar, if not completely encased in it. The gums are bright red and angry, and in some spots they’ve receded to expose the root of the tooth. The breath—oh, there are no words to describe the breath. “He’d really benefit from a dental procedure,” I suggest.
“But he’s still eating,” I’m told. “He doesn’t act like it bothers him at all.”
Let’s not mince words here. If a completely normal-looking tooth can cause such agony for a person, is there really any question that these animals are suffering? It’s easy to overlook dental care in animals because, by and large, they keep silent about it. And worse, dentistry hasn’t really become a focus in veterinary medicine until the last decade or so, which means long-time animal lovers don’t remember this ever being discussed with them before. But pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t make it vanish. Dental tartar and gingivitis are not cosmetic. They cause significant discomfort, eventually climbing up and around the roots of the tooth to cause deeper inflammation, infection, and pain.
Prevention is always the best bet to keep things from growing this dire. Although the suggestion frequently elicits incredulous giggles, nothing beats good old-fashioned brushing to keep dental disease at bay. Any soft-bristled toothbrush will do, but you’ll want to use a toothpaste intended for pets to keep them from swallowing too much fluoride (plus they come in pet-friendly flavors like chicken and fish). But here’s the rub —it really needs to be done every day or two in order to be effective. Less often than that, and you reach a point of diminishing returns where plaque has too much chance to harden into tartar, which is far more resistant to brushing. For the best results, you really want to stay ahead of that process.
There are a lot of tricks and products out there which are intended to keep animals’ teeth clean, and while they may help, they just don’t hold a candle to brushing. Feeding dry kibble can help scrape plaque away, but it’s no magic bullet. We wouldn’t be able to avoid the dentist by limiting our diet to crunchy food, and neither can our pets. Chew toys and long-lasting treats like rawhides can help scrape away tartar too, but dogs don’t chew equally with all their teeth, so the benefit isn’t likely to cover their entire mouth. Enzymatic drops and oral rinses promise the benefits of brushing without the hassle, but this is a bit like throwing out your toothbrush because you use mouthwash. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Despite best efforts, tartar is almost certain to accumulate in time. We brush our teeth twice a day (right?), and even we still need an occasional scaling to keep things clean. It’s exactly the same for dogs and cats. A proper scaling does require anesthesia, which often frightens people. But in healthy animals, anesthesia is extremely safe, and the risk of leaving things unchecked is far greater. You may see nonanesthetized dental scaling advertised, but it’s not worth the cost. Although the teeth look nicer at a glance, disease above the gumline has gone completely unaddressed, and the tooth roots remain at risk of progressive decay.
When that kind of disease gets out of control, we don’t have much choice but to extract the offending teeth. It’s not as bad as it sounds, I promise. Animals don’t notice the loss, and they’re far more comfortable without festering dental abscesses and throbbing nerves. If your veterinarian has suggested an extraction, it is almost certainly in your pet’s best interests. Believe me—pulling teeth is like, well, pulling teeth. We don’t enjoy it, and we don’t do it if we don’t have to.
It’s surprisingly easy to take our pets’ teeth for granted. No matter how bad their dental disease gets, they seem to go about their lives as if nothing is wrong. But we shouldn’t mistake their stoicism for permission to ignore their health. Just like people, animals suffer when their teeth aren’t taken care of. Luckily, just like people, it’s also not that hard to keep them on the right track.