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Dental care improves pets' lives

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By Dr. Greg Mcgrath
Monday, Jan. 18, 2010

Cats and dogs need proper dental care throughout their lives in order to enjoy the longest, healthiest lives possible. Caring for oral health can make a big difference in your pets' quality of life, especially as they get older. The foundation for this lifetime with a healthy mouth begins in infancy.

An oral examination is part of a complete physical examination, and should be performed at the first visit to the veterinarian with a puppy or kitten. The doctor will check to see that the baby has the proper number of teeth and that they are properly positioned. As the pet returns for recheck examinations and booster vaccinations, the eruption of new teeth can be monitored.

Special attention needs to be paid to the mouths of small and toy breed dogs, as they are more prone to having retained deciduous teeth ("baby" teeth that don't fall out as the permanent teeth come in). Sometimes these teeth need to be extracted to allow the adult teeth to develop with proper alignment and prevent gum problems that may develop when food and other debris wedges between teeth that are too close together.

In young adulthood, the primary dental care that is needed is periodic cleaning to prevent the development of gum disease. Owners can help keep teeth clean by brushing their pets' teeth regularly, feeding dry food and providing proper chewing devices.

Most cats and dogs will need their teeth cleaned professionally for the first time somewhere between 2 and 5 years of age.

After that, they may need a cleaning every year or two. Some pets will accumulate tartar more rapidly than the average and need more frequent cleanings. If your pet has "bad breath," it's probably a sign that it needs an oral exam.

Having your pets' teeth professionally cleaned when it's recommended by the doctor is one of the most important things you can do to care for its entire body, not just its mouth. The normal mouth contains many bacteria that will cause problems if they get into other areas of the body.

If gum inflammation or deeper periodontal disease is allowed to develop, these bacteria get into the bloodstream and travel to other parts of the body. The kidneys and heart valves are two locations where secondary infections often develop.

These infections may not be obvious immediately, but they can cause insidious damage and lead to premature kidney failure or heart failure.

And, allowing periodontal disease to progress by not cleaning teeth when they need it can cause serious problems down the road inside the mouth.

Once bone is lost around the roots of the teeth from periodontal disease, it will never be replaced. When enough bone is lost that a tooth becomes unstable, the only treatment to let that infected area heal is extraction of the tooth.

With modern veterinary dental care, tooth loss in older pets does not have to happen, and shouldn't. It's disappointing to have to extract loose teeth from a pet and look back in the medical record to see that cleaning had been recommended years earlier, but never was done.

Older pets also need to have their mouth examined by a veterinarian to look for other problems such as oral tumors, broken teeth, or cavities. If these problems are detected and treated early enough, your pet's quality of life will be enhanced.

Your pets' doctor realizes that proper dental care is one of the foundations for overall good health. Please follow the doctor's recommendations to maximize the quality of life that you and your pet enjoy.

Dr. Greg McGrath, a veterinarian at Cedar Lake Pet Hospital in Biloxi, Miss., encourages questions for this column. Write to South Mississippi Veterinary Medical Association, 20005 Pineville Road, Long Beach MS 39560 and include a self-addressed stamped envelope.

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