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Vet speak by Alison Laurie-Chalmers: Prevention is better than cure for dog’s toothy problem

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Dental care is as important for dogs as it is for their owners.
Dental care is as important for dogs as it is for their owners.

Paloma was a five-year-old Bichon Frise with very bad breath. On examination I could see she had some heavy tartar build up over her molars and that the gum line was inflamed and bled easily on handling.

Dental disease can advance silently and quickly causing smelly breath, pain, eroding gums, infection and eventually missing teeth. It is common in all dogs.

Gum disease is caused by bacteria, along with food, saliva, and other particles in the mouth forming a sticky film called plaque over the teeth and gums. Gum disease is five times more common in dogs than in humans, because dogs have a more alkaline mouth which promotes plaque formation. Also, if dogs don’t have daily, cleansing “chewing” action and don’t have their teeth brushed clean every day, this gives the bacteria even more chance to multiply.

The plaque film hardens over time forming a hard calculus called tartar which is a perfect surface for even more plaque build-up. Tartar and bacteria at the gum line can lead to inflamed, bleeding gum tissues called gingivitis. Gingivitis can be reversible if tartar is cleaned off the teeth, however if left untreated, this can progress further to periodontitis. Periodontitis is irreversible, characterised by the destruction of the supporting structures of the teeth, which leads to a loss of attachment of the tooth in the socket, which will eventually lead to tooth mobility, further infection and ultimately, loss of teeth.

The infection from chronic long-term dental disease may also potentially eventually enter the pet’s bloodstream, causing infections elsewhere in the body.

Dental disease can eventually be very painful, but most animals are extremely good at covering up these signs. Look out for signs such as bad breath; red swollen gums; decreased appetite; selective eating, for example preferring softer foods; difficulty in picking up food; blood in saliva, blood in their water bowl or on toys; pawing at their mouth and dribbling excessively; and swelling of the face on the nose just below their eyes.

Preventing any dental and gum disease progressing can be a part of your care and routine for your pet, with teeth ideally brushed daily, to minimise bacteria building up and help your dog maintain a healthy clean mouth.

Introduce teeth brushing at the puppy stage so they grow up thinking this daily procedure is quite normal. If brushing is introduced at a young age most dogs respond well and enjoy this new form of attention. Ask your vet or vet nurse to demonstrate and introduce tooth brushing gradually using healthy treat rewards and dog toothpaste. Also give your dog healthy dental chews. Advised dental chews are those that will last, and not be eaten in seconds, and those that are not too hard and have some safe pliability, and those that are the correct type and size for your dog.

Remember, many pet insurance policies do not cover dental work, so it is even more important to look after your pet’s teeth from an early age.

Paloma had her dental procedure and her teeth cleaned thoroughly under a safely monitored anaesthetic, and she was soon smelling beautiful again.

Her owner was counselled on keeping her teeth brushed and cleaned and she had regular dental checks thereafter.

• Alison Laurie-Chalmers is a senior consultant with Crown Vets in Inverness.

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