Dental disease is a serious problem in companion animals and can often go undiagnosed. As with anything else, the maxim ‘prevention is better than a cure’ applies to our pets’ oral healthcare too…
By Justine Shotton, President, British Veterinary Association
Simple steps such as regularly cleaning dogs’ teeth and feeding a fibre-rich diet to rabbits and guinea pigs will help prevent painful gum and teeth disease for our pets and avoid costly dental treatment for owners.
ORAL HEALTHCARE FOR DOGS AND CATS
Dogs, like their owners, have two sets of teeth throughout their lives. Their baby teeth, or deciduous teeth, start to come through at about 3-4 weeks of age, and start to be replaced with permanent, or adult teeth from about four months old. You often don’t see the baby teeth when they fall out, but you may notice that your puppy goes through a period of chewing things when teething (which is why it’s good to have appropriate toys around rather than your slippers!). Although it’s rare, in some dogs, the deciduous canines do not fall out, which can lead to tartar build-up between the deciduous and permanent tooth, teeth being forced into abnormal and potentially painful positions, or problems with the adult teeth in the long term. If you notice your dog has retained deciduous teeth, speak to your vet.
Like with us, brushing your dog’s teeth daily is the best way to prevent dental disease and keep your dog’s teeth healthy throughout their lifetime. Start getting your dog used to having their teeth brushed as early as possible, and always use a special dog toothbrush and dog toothpaste. It can take time to get your dog used to having their teeth brushed, so try to start with them getting comfortable with having their cheek stroked while they are still puppies, working towards them being comfortable with your hand being in their mouth. It is often easier to then move onto using toothpaste on your finger, before working your way up to using a brush. It’s also possible for older dogs to learn to have their teeth brushed calmly. Speak to your vet about how to do this – there are also some useful resources guiding you through this that your vet will be able to point you towards.
It’s important to be careful when it comes to dental chews and toys. Toys and chews are not a replacement for tooth brushing when it comes to keeping your dog’s teeth healthy, and in fact, there are some things you should be cautious of. Some edible dental chews are very high in calories, which in excess can lead to obesity, and some non-edible chews can be too hard, alongside items such as reindeer antlers, stones and bones, which can damage and fracture teeth as well as cause other problems such as gut blockages. Make sure you stick to dental-safe chews and toys. Like dogs, cats’ teeth should ideally be brushed daily, but this can be more challenging. Some cats tolerate brushing reasonably well, so it’s best to start trying it out from the time they are kittens. There is some evidence that feeding dry food may help to keep cats’ teeth healthy, but there are other advantages of wet food too – so do talk to your vet who will be able to advise you based on your cat’s health, age and lifestyle, as to what diet is best. As with dogs, cats should also be taken for regular veterinary checks and dental appointments as necessary. Generally with dogs and cats, they don’t get cavities like we do (from too much sugar, for example), but instead get gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) due to plaque and tartar buildup.
Over time, this can result in the gum health deteriorating so much that the tooth roots are exposed. Once this happens, there is rarely a way to ‘save’ the tooth and extractions under general anaesthetic are the best way to ensure the pet isn’t in chronic pain or that dental infections get worse. Severe dental disease results in serious pain for your pet, and we would always recommend veterinary dental treatments. It’s important to know that cats and dogs cope well even with very few teeth if they do need to have extractions – but as we said, prevention is always better than cure. Cats can also develop ‘resorptive lesions’ which can affect more than a third of adult cats. This can be very painful and is caused by the tooth’s own cells (odontoclasts) destroying parts of the tooth’s surface and dissolving it. We don’t fully understand why cats develop these lesions but the best treatment is also removing the tooth. Rarely, cats can also develop ‘stomatitis’, which is a form of painful inflammation in the mouth and around the teeth. This is not always associated with dental disease, but can cause similar signs, so if you have any concerns about your cat’s oral health (smelly breath, drooling, struggling to eat etc), do talk to your vet.
WHAT’S UP, DOC?
Rabbits’ and guinea pigs’ teeth grow continuously throughout their lives and need to be worn down by grinding and chewing high-fibre foods, such as hay and grass, to keep their teeth to the correct shape and length. If fed an inappropriate diet, their teeth are likely to get too long which will cause pain and abscesses. Unfortunately, many vets see rabbits and guinea pigs suffering from dental disease, as well as other common nutrition-related issues such as obesity and gut problems. A survey conducted by the British Veterinary Association a few years ago found that five of the top six rabbit health problems vets see in practice are attributable to poor diet. Dental issues in rabbits can be life-threatening, so it’s vital to follow a proper diet regimen. Rabbits and guinea pigs should be fed a fibre-rich diet that includes lots of hay, fresh grass if possible, green leafy vegetables such as kale, cabbage and broccoli, and complete kibble food to prevent teeth problems. Although muesli diets are colourful and often more attractive to rabbits than pellets, they encourage selective feeding and predispose the animals to dental disease and obesity, and should never be fed. These pets should be fed a small amount of pellets daily – about an egg cup full – which provide a good complementary source of vitamins and minerals.
Teeth problems are also very common in flat faced (brachycephalic) rabbits, as their flat faces mean they are often born with teeth that do not align properly, and so cannot be ground down. You should check your bunny’s or guinea pig’s front teeth at least once a week. Their back teeth can be difficult to see, so it is advisable to have regular dental checks with your vet to check for any issues. If you notice your rabbit or guinea pig drooling from the mouth or with discharge from its eyes, or if it stops eating, contact your vet immediately as this can be life-threatening and requires urgent treatment.
SIGNS YOUR PET NEEDS VETERINARY CARE
If you’re unable to brush your dog or cat’s teeth daily, it is likely that it will develop dental disease at some point. Likewise, if you have adopted a pet such a rabbit that may not have been fed the best diet, it may well have dental problems. There are various signs to look out for – for example, 5.49 halitosis (bad breath), gingivitis (swelling and inflammation of the gums), which is often seen as a red line where the gum meets the tooth, or tartar, which is indicated by a hard yellow/brown covering of parts of the tooth. If you notice any of these, or more serious signs such as drooling, bleeding from your pet’s mouth, eye discharge or trouble eating, contact your vet straight away. They may advise that your pet undergo a ‘dental’ – a procedure done under anaesthetic to clean teeth, remove diseased teeth and look for any gum issues.
While the majority of preventative dental care can be done at home in the form of tooth-brushing for dogs and cats or correct diets for rabbits and guinea pigs, it’s vital that treatments such as tooth cleanings and extractions are performed by a vet. It’s likely they will need a full anaesthetic for these procedures and important that teeth can be cleaned under the gum-line, which is not possible when pets are conscious. In rabbits, signs of dental problems such as overgrown teeth include decreased appetite, weight loss, wet chin, discharge from the eyes or nose, and lumps on the jaw line. If your bunny stops eating or stops caecotrophy – that is, it stops eating a type of soft faeces usually produced at dawn or dusk – their teeth could be a potential cause. In rabbits, anything that stops them eating (teeth-related, pain-related, other issues etc) is a true emergency, and without rapid veterinary treatment their life is at risk, so please urgently contact your vet.
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