Rudy, my 3 year old granddog, was in not long ago for his first dental cleaning. While I never like to perform procedures on my own pets, I did hover around the dental table while Dr. Stein and Caleb, the dental tech that day, took care of things. I knew it should be a routine scaling and polishing, but I also knew that dental cleanings in cats and dogs are much more complicated than in people.
My dental cleaning a couple of weeks ago would I think be a typical one for most people. I had no obvious dental issues, but I go in every 6 months because I know regular check ups and cleanings are an important part of my health care. After a few minutes waiting, I was escorted back and Gwen, my hygienist for over 25 years, expertly cleaned and polished my teeth. It took maybe 30 minutes and after my dentist did his follow up exam, I was driving home within an hour of walking in. Every 2-3 visits I get full oral x-rays to look for hidden problems, which maybe adds 10 minutes to the whole process. It also adds a lot of stress since holding those image plates in my mouth without gagging is something I have yet to master. Anyway, simple, right? Now let’s compare my dental cleaning with Rudy’s dental cleaning.
Unlike me, Rudy does not brush and floss at home. Although my son and daughter-in-law take very good care of Rudy, like most pet owners they have found that regular brushing is difficult at best. Flossing is impossible. They have been able to wipe an enzyme pet toothpaste across the teeth occasionally to help somewhat, but in spite of their best efforts, Rudy developed significant calculus buildup on his teeth and early gingivitis along his gumline. He showed no evidence of being uncomfortable, but we all know that inflamed gums with plaque and tartar buildup are uncomfortable. More important, the complications that develop if dental disease is left untreated are well documented – receding gums, painful periodontal disease, damaged enamel, and lost teeth. In addition, bacteria spread in the bloodstream can contribute to serious health issues including heart, kidney and respiratory disease. They set up an appointment to drop Rudy off one morning for a dental cleaning.
I want to make clear that Rudy is a special, incredible, amazing dog. I know he is my granddog, but this is an unbiased, professional opinion. Even so, he will not let me perform a thorough oral exam and he certainly will not let anyone perform a dental cleaning or take oral x-rays. This meant Rudy, like all pets getting a proper dental cleaning, needed to be anesthetized. Dr. Stein did a complete physical exam and performed some routine blood tests to make sure he was ready for anesthesia. That done, the techs placed an IV catheter for drug administration, the dental table was set up, and anesthetic monitors, dental instruments, and the gas anesthesia machine were all readied.
After his exam and blood test results came back normal, Rudy was given a general anesthetic. A slow IV fluid drip was started, anesthetic monitors were placed, an endotracheal tube was passed, and he was hooked up to the gas anesthesia machine to safely keep him sleeping. Now that he was asleep, we could finally get a good look at all areas of his mouth to help determine what exactly needed to be done. Broken or loose teeth, damaged enamel, deep pockets of hair and debris under the gumline, and various stages of periodontal disease are a few of the things commonly found that can be easily missed with exams while awake. X-rays that can only be taken under anesthesia can reveal even more hidden problems. Unlike a human dentist, a veterinarian can never fully evaluate their patient’s mouth until anesthetized. Happily, we did not find anything of concern with Rudy beyond the obvious calculus buildup and gingivitis.
Caleb proceeded with the cleaning and polishing. As with all pets, this took much longer than when my teeth were cleaned. Remember, Rudy had not been brushing and flossing regularly like people can. He had a much heavier calculus buildup to be scaled and more probing and cleaning were needed below the gumline. All through the procedure, the anesthesia had to be consistently monitored to make sure Rudy stayed asleep at the proper level for his safety and comfort.
Once the cleaning and polishing were complete, Rudy could not get up and walk out the door like I did at the dentist. He was sound asleep. We carefully took him off the dental table and he was placed on a heating pad to stay warm. He was then monitored closely while he slowly woke up. After about 30 minutes he was up and around, a little unsteady and slightly confused, but in his usual good spirits. The wake up time in pets can vary from 30 minutes up to an hour or more depending on a lot of factors including what dental procedures had to be done, if pain medications were needed, and how long they had to be asleep.
By now, Rudy had been at the hospital all morning. As he was waking up, my thoughts turned to home care. At my dentist, I always get a nice new toothbrush, some dental floss, and if lucky, a small tube of toothpaste. This won’t work with Rudy. The sad fact is, in spite of years of research, trial products, and much discussion, there is nothing that slows the recurrence of calculus buildup and gum disease in pets as much as I would like. The gold standard remains daily brushing with a pet approved toothpaste, but we have to face the fact that this is just not going to happen. Since every pet and owner’s situation is unique, a home care plan has to be tailored individually. I do have some general thoughts, however.
First of all, if you can brush or wipe a pet toothpaste across the teeth only 2-3 a week, I believe that can be helpful. If less often than that, I am not sure it is worthwhile. In addition to manual cleaning, there are special diets, chew type products and water additives to help maintain a healthy mouth. Chewing on things that are too hard (like rocks, sticks, and hard chew toys) can break a tooth so be sure to encourage safe items. The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) Seal of Acceptance is given to products that meet or exceed standards for managing the buildup of plaque and tartar that lead to dental disease. The VOHC website at www.VOHC.org has a listing of accepted products as well as additional information on dental disease in both cats and dogs.
My opinion is that whether you feed dry or wet food makes no difference as far as developing dental disease. However, I do think it helps to avoid leaving food out to be snacked on all day. For the most part, Rudy has specific meal times so that is not a problem. Along with a renewed effort to use pet toothpaste to clean his teeth more often, I sent home some VOHC approved dental chew treats that should help delay the plaque and calculus buildup.
Like me, Rudy will need regular dental check ups and periodic cleanings to maintain a healthy, pain free mouth. In the meantime, with his now pearly white teeth, Rudy is back to work keeping watch over the family and is busy chasing frisbees, butterflies, and shadows.