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Making your Senior Pet’s Golden Years Shine! Part 2: Treating and Preventing Dental Disease

Making your Senior Pet’s Golden Years Shine!

Part 2: 

Treating and Preventing Dental Disease

Bruce W. Francke, D.V.M.


In part one of this series we talked about how regular veterinary care during your Senior Pet’s later years can have a very significant impact on the length and quality of their life. We learned the unfortunate fact that 77% of cats 12 years and older and 69% of dogs 10 years and older are NOT being seen in the 18 months prior to being euthanized! We also learned that early intervention is our most important tool in effectively treating most conditions seen in older pets. So, at the very stage of life that we can do the most for these pets, we are seeing them the least!

In the next few installments of this series, we will examine specific body systems and diseases where we can have a real impact in your pet’s quality of life. We will start with dental disease.

Did you know that 80-85% of dogs and cats over 6 years of age have significant dental disease? Pets that get regular dental care can live 1.5 to 2 years longer and have a better quality of life. The early stages of dental disease begin as young as 3 years of age and even sooner in some specific breeds. In our practice, dental disease is probably the most common medical condition we see in dogs and cats, and becomes more and more common as pets age.

How would you know if your pet has dental disease? The most common signs that you might notice at home are:

Stinky breath. This is one of the earliest signs and one that can definitely affect the quality of your interactions with your pet! Wouldn’t you want to snuggle more with a pet that has fresh breath?

Red or swollen gums. We call this gingivitis and it can also be quite painful.

Yellow or brown color on the teeth. This is tartar, or calculus, and is an accumulation of dead bacteria combined with calcium from the saliva. The part you can see isn’t the most important. It’s the calculus below the gum line that you can’t see that is slowly loosening the attachments of your pet’s teeth and eating away the bone of the jaw.

Loose or missing teeth. This is a sure sign that your pet is in the advanced stages of dental disease!

Trouble chewing, lack of appetite or weight loss. Dental disease is painful! If you’ve ever had a toothache you can probably appreciate what it would be like to have many teeth affected at the same time! Ouch!!

All of our doctors and nurses at Bay Animal Hospital are trained in recognizing the clinical signs of dental disease. During your pet’s physical examination, we will assign a stage from 1 to 4 to your pet’s dental condition. Stage 1 is characterized by mild swelling of the gums, progressing up to Stage 4 which is characterized by severe pain, bone and tooth loss, and potential damage to other body organs from blood-borne infection from the mouth.

Dental disease is not inevitable in your pet! It can be prevented through regular home care (brushing, rinses, safe dental chews, dental diets, etc.) and professional dental cleanings. These treatments include cleaning, polishing, charting, and x-raying all teeth, then extracting any teeth that are not viable and periodontal therapy where needed.

Since dental disease is the most common condition we see in our practice, Bay Animal Hospital has invested heavily in both equipment and training to do the best job possible in treating your pet’s dental disease. The anatomy of your pet’s teeth is similar to a human-being, with some important differences. The teeth of primarily carnivorous animals are more deeply rooted than human teeth. This means that surgical tooth extraction becomes more time-consuming, and is more complicated in pets than humans.

Pet’s must always be put under general anesthesia to receive proper dental treatments. Be aware of “anesthesia-free” dentistry advertised by some veterinarians! These procedures are largely cosmetic, superficial, and ineffective in treating dental disease. Because of the requirement for general anesthesia, we will take every precaution to ensure your pet’s safety during these procedures. In particular, we will take steps to check that major organ systems are functioning well, including the kidneys, liver, heart and lungs. If necessary, we will delay the procedure and treat underlying conditions first. While anesthesia is never risk-free, the risk of advanced dental disease shortening your pet’s life is much higher than having an adverse event during anesthesia. During your pet’s procedure, we will use a number of methods to maintain body temperature, including administering warm intravenous fluids. Anesthesia is administered by a Licensed Veterinary Technician, and we will monitor all physiologic parameters. If extractions are necessary, a cocktail of pain management drugs will be used, including local dental blocks which are very effective in providing comfort both during and after the procedure. A team consisting of a doctor, a technician, and a highly trained veterinary assistant will be working on your pet all the way through recovery. Each team works on only one patient at a time to ensure they receive 100% of our attention.

In order to make sure that the dental procedure is efficient, effective, and anesthesia time is as short as possible, we have a state-of-the-art digital dental radiograph system that allows us to visualize all teeth below the gumline. This is critical in finding hidden disease and decision making about treatment for each tooth. Our dental equipment is just like your human dentist, with dental drills, electronic scalers, electronic polishers, water and suction. Hand instruments include dental elevators, probes, and everything else you would see in a human dentist’s office. Extractions are performed surgically with a flap of gingiva being sutured over the empty socket to speed healing.  

Patients will be discharged on the same day in the vast majority of dental procedures. We will instruct you on the best way to care for them at home, including what to feed, how to medicate your pet, and most importantly, how to care for your pet’s teeth at home to minimize the number of professional dental cleanings they will need in the future. Your pet will be sent home with teeth that are completely clean, and in a few days, they will have fresh breath and a pain-free mouth! It’s YOUR job to keep them like that! I always tell my clients to protect your investment in the dental by doing preventative home care. We will be happy to show you how. In fact, there is a video on this website on how to brush your dog’s teeth.

I should mention that most of the training needed to perform dental procedures in pets happens after veterinary school, so there can be significant differences in capabilities from one veterinary hospital to the next. Like most things in life, if the price of the dental seems too-good-to-be-true, it probably is!

Dental care is a critical part of making your senior pet’s golden years shine, but this takes teamwork! Bring your pet in for regular exams and together we can decide the best course of action to keep your pet’s mouth healthy and pain-free!

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