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February: National Dental Health Month for Pets

February is National Pet Dental Health Month and owners are reminded that a pet’s bad breath could signify a potentially serious dental or oral disease that could pose a health risk to the animal’s internal organs.

The American Veterinary Dental Society (AVDS), in fact, reports that 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have some form of oral or dental disease by age three. According to Dr. William Krug, who directs the Dentistry Service in the Veterinary Health and Wellness Center  at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, preventative health care does not have to be complicated.

“An early oral exam by a veterinarian is important to properly diagnose gum and dental disease,” Dr. Krug says. “Good oral health is an important component of an animal’s overall well-being. Oral disease can begin simply with bacteria and plaque on a tooth surface near the gum line and progress into a condition that can cause tooth decay, bleeding gums, tooth loss, potentially even damage to the heart and other internal organs.”

The signs of possible gum and dental issues include: bad breath; loose teeth or teeth that are discolored or covered in tartar; abnormal drooling, dropping food from the mouth or swallowing food whole; bleeding from the mouth; sensitivity in the mouth area; and loss of appetite or other changes in eating or chewing habits.

Trouble begins when food particles and bacteria form plaque and tartar, which can lead to gingivitis and periodontal disease. Periodontal disease, in turn, leads to tooth decay, bad breath, bleeding gums, and tooth loss. Further complications arise when the bacteria that cause periodontal disease travel into a pet’s bloodstream, possibly resulting in damage to the heart, liver, kidneys and lungs.

Small breed dogs can develop severe problems with periodontal disease because of crowding, and it can lead to extreme discomfort and even problems like a broken jaw from the progressive loss of bone. Cats can develop marked inflammation called stomatitis, which can be painful enough to make them stop eating.

“There is discomfort associated with generalized periodontal disease,” says Dr. Krug. “If your pet is having oral discomfort, it’s likely that periodontal disease is present. Without regular dental cleanings by a veterinarian and daily preventive maintenance, the disease is almost guaranteed to progress.”

At the minimum, Dr. Krug suggests annual visits to the veterinarian for an anesthetized dental scale/ polish, a thorough oral examination, and dental radiographs if recommended. “If owners can brush their pet’s teeth on a daily basis,” he says, “then they are taking huge strides towards slowing the progress of the periodontal degeneration.”

One word of warning: never use human toothpaste to brush your pet’s teeth. It can make the animal sick. Special foods, dental chews, rawhide, dental bones, and other healthy products can help keep teeth white and free of disease.

In addition to the AVDS, other organizations formally involved in promoting pet dental health include the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Academy of Veterinary Dentistry, American Veterinary Dental College, Academy of Veterinary Dental Technicians, Veterinary Oral Health Council, and Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Inc.

The American Veterinary Medical Association offers details on dental health care.