What is it?
Dental disease is a catch-all term relating to disease of the teeth and gums. It is very common in dogs, and ranges from mild scale on the teeth to severe periodontal disease that may contribute to kidney or heart disease.
What causes it?
Unlike us, dogs and cats do not brush their teeth every morning and evening. As a result, plaque builds up - this is a mixture of food material, dead cells from the gums, and bacteria. Over time, this becomes thicker and then mineralises (turns into a hard, stone-like matrix which we call tartar). When this bacteria-ridden growth reaches the gum line, it causes infection of the gums - gingivitis. If untreated, this will spread down into the tooth socket, and at this stage we refer to it as periodontitis. This weakens the ligaments holding the teeth in the socket, causing them to become loose and eventually fall out. In addition, infection can spread through the bloodstream to other organs, especially the heart and kidneys. It doesn't matter what food a dog is eating, or whether they regularly chew bones or chew toys - some dogs will still develop tartar and then dental disease (although some foods are worse than others).
What dogs are at risk?
All dogs are at risk from dental disease, but it is often most dramatic in older dogs where the plaque has had years to build up. In addition, miniature and toy breeds are slightly more likely to develop early onset dental disease because they often have abnormalities of the mouth, meaning the teeth are at odd angles and therefore are more likely to build up plaque and tartar.
What are the symptoms?
Initially, the main symptom is halitosis (bad breath!). Over time, this may progress to red, swollen and inflamed gums, loose teeth and pain when eating. In severe cases, dogs may stop eating entirely. In addition, heart disease and kidney failure have both been linked to untreated dental disease.
How is it diagnosed?
Simple physical examination is often sufficient, however, dental X-rays are also invaluable. In most dogs, a full examination of the mouth and teeth requires a general anaesthetic so that the gum-lines can be probed (something that isn't possible in very many conscious ones!).
How can it be treated or managed?
Once dental disease (even severe plaque) has developed, it requires surgical treatment - we call this "a dental", and it's exactly the same treatment as you get when you go to the dentist. The only difference is that we have to use a general anaesthetic. We will carefully examine every tooth, and remove any that are too diseased to survive. Then we'll clean the remaining teeth with an ultrasonic scaler and then polish them to make them smooth. Afterwards, preventative care is all that is usually needed!
Can it be prevented?
Yes, very easily. Although there are a range of "dental chews" available, these are of limited use in most dogs (although they're often better than nothing). The same goes for specialist dental diets; chewing on bones is not reliable and may introduce health problems of its own, so isn't something we'd usually recommend. The most important and effective preventative treatment is tooth brushing - something you should be doing every day. Use a normal tooth brush, and special dog-toothpaste (don't use human toothpaste - the mint burns their gums), and gently brush the teeth at least daily. Mouthwash additives in their water or food will also help slow down the growth of plaque. Regular brushing sounds difficult, but it is the only way to prevent the formation of plaque and subsequent dental disease.