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Mersea Road, Colchester, CO2 8PZ

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Preventative dental care – why is it important?

Rebecca Lee MRCVS

Dental disease will affect most pets at some point in their life - we find dental disease affects 70% of adult cats and dogs. The main cause of this dental disease is plaque. But what is plaque?

Plaque is a film of bacteria and proteins from saliva. Over time it builds up on the surfaces of the teeth, and it can harden to become tartar (calculus). Tartar is a rough surface which makes it easier for bacteria to settle on it. The bacteria which survive best within the plaque at the gum line tend to be those which don’t need oxygen to live. These ‘anaerobic’ bacteria tend to be the ones that produce foul smelling odours, the cause of ‘dog breath’. Toxins from these bacteria irritate the gums, causing redness and inflammation (gingivitis), which is the body’s response to the bacteria. The teeth sit in sockets within the jaw bone and are attached by a ligament. Inflammation can cause destruction of the bone and ligament, forming ‘pockets’ where more bacteria can grow, and eventually leads to tooth loss. The bacteria can break away in clumps and get into the pet’s bloodstream, leading to systemic (whole body) infections.

Plaque is affected only very slightly by disinfectants and antibiotics. To tackle it properly, it needs to be physically removed. We do this with an ultrasonic scaler, similar to a human dentist. Your pet will be under a full general anaesthetic though, as pets cannot be told to sit still and ‘open wide’ as we would in the dentist’s chair.

How do you decide when my pet needs a dental?

The following may be signs of dental disease:

  • Bad breath (halitosis)
  • Fractured teeth with visible pulp (the sensitive part of the tooth), or discoloured teeth
  • Rubbing at the face with a paw or rubbing the face on the ground
  • Eating on one side of the mouth, or dropping food
  • Reduced appetite, some animals may seem generally unwell
  • Visible redness of the gums, or staining of the teeth
  • Drooling excessively, sometimes with a bad odour, or blood staining of the saliva
  • Swelling of the face in the case of tooth root abscesses – sometimes these may burst through the skin

When we examine your pets mouth, we grade any dental disease on a scale of 1-4, with 1 being mild plaque/mild redness of the gums, and 4 being serious dental disease with extensive tartar. At grade 4 there may also be infection and pus, and tooth attachment loss (wobbly or missing teeth). Generally we recommend a dental scale and polish when your pet’s mouth reaches a grade 2-3. At this point, if we intervene, removing all of the existing plaque and tartar, it will hopefully return your pet’s mouth to a healthier state,  and stop it getting to the point where they suffer painful infections and tooth loss. Preventative dental care can then be started at home.

What do you mean by ‘preventative dental care’?

Preventative dental care is aimed at reducing the numbers of bacteria in the mouth, and reducing the amount of plaque on the teeth. If home care is started before the stage where the gums become inflamed (gingivitis) it can be effective in keeping the mouth healthy. When we talk about home care, we mean regular brushing of teeth, at least once a week (yes, even cats can be trained to accept this)! Tooth brushing does require a training commitment from you to get your pet to accept the brush and action of brushing.  

Human toothpaste should not be used – it is too high in fluoride for our pets. Dog and cat toothpastes are enzymatic, meaning they are activated by the pet’s saliva and they can be swallowed safely – your pet does not need to rinse and spit!

You will need a brush that fits comfortably in your pet’s mouth, with soft bristles. If your pet will not tolerate this, there are brushes that fit on the end of your finger.

The toothbrush needs to be introduced slowly, with lots of treats and encouragement. Allow your pet to get used to the smell and taste of the toothpaste.

If your pet really won’t accept brushing then there are products that can help with dental hygiene. Logic oral gel is an example. It contains enzymes which help to maintain a normal bacteria population in the mouth -  it can help prevent plaque formation, and it contains a surfactant which helps it ‘stick’ to the teeth. For animals who will not tolerate brushing, it can be applied on to the teeth and gums using its applicator, or for cats it can be placed on a paw so they can lick it off.

We tend to find that treat chews such as rawhide and dental sticks are chewed up and swallowed quickly before they have much time to clean the pet’s teeth. We do not recommend bones are fed to dogs because of the risks of parts being chewed off, swallowed and getting stuck in the dog’s stomach or intestines. They may also cause damage to the dog’s teeth. Dogs who chew stones and hard objects may also be more at risk of damaging their teeth.

Pet food brands like Hills have a prescription diet called T/d which is proven to help reduce the buildup of plaque due to the size and shape of its kibble. This is available for dogs and cats. 

In summary, if we are actively involved in keeping our pets’ mouths healthy with regular tooth brushing and appropriate diet, it can avoid the need for serious dental work later in the pet’s life. Major dentals do carry a cost because extractions can be technically challenging and an older pet may need additional support during the anaesthetic. If we can intervene early and prevent plaque accumulating, it can prevent the negative welfare implications of advanced dental disease. If you have any concerns about your pet’s dental health, please book them in for a dental examination.

If you would like to know more…

Logic website https://www.logicforpets.co.uk/pet-condition/dental

Hills Pet Care https://www.hillspet.com/dog-care/healthcare/dental-disease-in-dogs

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