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Caring for your pet's dental health

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When it comes to dental care for dogs and cats, prevention is the strategy, just like it is for people, according to veterinarians who specialize in dentistry. Caring for your pet's teeth is crucial to its overall health.

“Pets need an exam twice a year and a once-a-year teeth cleaning under anesthesia, said Dr. Jan Bellows, a veterinary dentist who practices in Weston, Fla. “We don’t just see pets after traumatic incidents such as a fractured tooth or a cancerous growth in the oral cavity. Prevention is becoming the standard of care.”

But it wasn’t always like that, he said. For more than a decade, a major pet food manufacturer has sponsored National Pet Dental Health Month each February, a program that originally was aimed at educating veterinarians about the virtues of pet oral health. Gradually, as veterinarians have become tuned in to dental health, owners are also becoming more cognizant of dental health, Bellows said.

“Pet owners are realizing that preventive oral health care for their pets will give them longer, healthier lives, just as it does for us,” he said. 

Built to hide pain

Preventive dental care in pets is important because animals rarely show obvious signs of dental disease that an owner would ever recognize, said Dr. Tony Woodward, a veterinary dentist in Colorado Springs. “We somehow expect dogs or cats to paw at their faces or show other outward signs of pain like we do, but they don’t; they are not programmed to. In the wild, they are built to hide pain. Nothing good comes from showing pain.”

Woodward notes that preventive dental care in pets shouldn’t seem like such a foreign idea. “Put yourself in your pet’s place,” he said. “If you ate biscuits and cookies for a year and didn’t get much in the way of dental care, you would probably develop some kind of dental problem. That’s why pets need preventive care.”

Benefits of preventive care

Preventive oral care detects problems before they occur or lessens them when they are discovered. For example, cervical line lesions (CLL) are a common dental disease of domestic cats. The American Veterinary Dental College says that about 28 percent of domestic cats seen by veterinarians have cervical line lesions. Because the lesions often begin beneath the gumline, owners usually are unaware that there is a problem until the pet's tooth is seriously damaged.

Preventive care also is important for certain breeds of dogs, especially small dogs such as Pekingese and shih tzu. These breeds are more likely to develop tooth problems because their teeth are crowded into small mouths, creating a haven for plaque buildup that will cause problems down the road.

“It’s taken some time for pet owners to come around to the idea of preventive dental care for pets,” Bellows said. “But it took a while for the concept of preventive oral care for people to take hold, too. Look how that changed.”

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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