The growth pattern and structure of our teeth are very similar to those of our own. Soon after birth, a full set of temporary or deciduous teeth are produced in the same way as children have milk teeth. Owners often describe them as ‘sharp needles’, and their shape differs from the permanent teeth which grow through to replace them between the ages of four and six months.
The initial tooth problems that vet are presented with are often related to the malpositioning of the temporary teeth and their failure to be expelled when the permanent teeth erupt; this can lead to malformation of the mouth, tooth root problems and gum disease. If you have a puppy, the mouth should be checked carefully for persistent temporary teeth at five months of age.
The permanent teeth have to last the lifetime of your dog. In the wild, loss of these teeth would result in sub-optimal nutrition or even starvation. People usually brush their teeth twice daily, and dentists would encourage ‘flossing’ as well. If we don’t do this then tartar, plaque and eventually mouth disease occur. Our breath smells, our mouth tastes dreadful, and this can be painful. Dogs are no different. In the wild state, they would hunt and chew on fur and bone – nature’s toothbrush. Modern tinned food is mushy, even dry foods just crumble on the ‘table’ of the tooth and have little benefit at the gum margins where the disease occurs, leaving food deposits in the crevices between teeth and gums. This acts as a nutrient for bacteria to thrive in, for plaque and then tartar to develop and finally for tooth decay to take hold.
Tartar is a mixture of food, cellular debris, mineral salts and bacteria deposited on and around teeth, which with time causes gum recession, tooth root exposure, gingivitis, tooth loosening and eventual loss of teeth. It is possible to halt this process by adopting the following preventative measures. The first message is to start early. Play with your puppy’s mouth as soon as you get them. Train them to be used to you putting your fingers in their mouth and rubbing their gums a couple of times per day.
The next stage is to purchase a small dog toothbrush and gently run it inside the cheek pouch next to the molars and around the sharp ‘spiky’ canine teeth.
As they get a little older, use a companion animal toothpaste with a suitably sized brush to suit your dog.
Human brushes are too large in the head and usually too short in the handle. A dual-headed toothbrush works well. Do not use human paste as they ‘froth’ which dogs hate and they tend to be mint flavoured, which again dogs dislike. Use a good quality toothpaste which has an enzymatic base and is easy to use.
So it’s too late! Your dog has grown up and won’t let you brush his or her teeth! There are other options available. Oral gels come in a tube and can be applied by a brush which is very effective, but most people will put it on their finger and rub it onto the gums inside the cheek daily after the main meal. It helps kill bacteria and reduce plaque and tartar in the mouth. It also helps reduce bad breath.
Dental treats and toys are a very useful aid in controlling dental tartar. Chews for dogs come in all sizes and with their chewable hide base, infiltrated with enzymes to degrade tartar, they are a valuable aid in the armoury against mouth disease. There are also several dental toys on the market.
This is an important area where all owners could quickly help their dogs. Hard crunchy foods tend to be better for the teeth than soft ones although there is nothing wrong with feeding a proportion of a soft tinned or flat pack food. Food that we have seen excellent results with is a dried food with an over-sized kibble (in standard and mini depending on the size of your dog) with a flat upper and lower surface. This makes the kibble ‘sit’ between the teeth in a set plane and can only be crunched from one direction. Each kibble has a fibre lattice laid inside it. As the dog bites, the teeth go through the fibre which acts like a toothbrush. Dogs on at least 50% of this product appear to have significantly cleaner teeth than those who are not and, nutritionally, it is geared to middle-aged and older dogs.
Dental care: If your dog has dental disease, go and see your vet and discuss what level of treatment is available. The first stage is to remove tartar and plaque using an ultrasonic scaler, and the teeth must be polished afterwards. This improves dental health by minutely cleaning the surface and slowing re-deposition of tartar. Teeth with dental caries can be filled, although, for practical reasons, many owners wish and vets feel it is better, to remove these teeth. If tooth roots are very exposed, these teeth will need to be removed as well.
There are many different forms of mouth disease. Infection of the gums (gingivitis) may warrant a course of antibiotics, which your veterinarian may prescribe. However, mouth disease may represent more severe disease problems. If caught early by your veterinarian, rectifying procedures can be put in place. Dogs with kidney disease or diabetes may present as animals with smelly, infected mouths. Unfortunately, we see dogs with tumours and cancer of the mouth. Early diagnosis is essential. A critical area to be aware of is a secondary disease caused as a result of primary mouth disease. Dogs with gingivitis are a reservoir of infection which allows bacteria to float around the blood system where they seed out in vital organs served by the blood supply. This can cause heart valve disease, kidney disease and liver disease as a result of bad oral hygiene.
The message we hope we can pass to all dog owners is that if in doubt about mouth health, visit your vet. If your dog has tartar and plaque, get the teeth cleaned and then make sure that a regimen of dental care and hygiene is followed. Better still, don’t let your dog’s mouth get into a condition where veterinary dental treatment becomes necessary.