What is Periodontal Disease?

Daily brushing prevents dental disease and lengthens your dog's life.

By Susan H. Bertram, DVM | Posted: Mon Feb 3 00:00:00 PST 2003

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The health risks of periodontal disease extend beyond tooth loss. The virulent bacteria in the mouth can easily spread elsewhere in the body. "Every time a dog eats or chews, a stream of bacteria from the periodontal infection enters the bloodstream," Dr. Lobprise said. "Studies in humans have linked disease of major organs such as the liver, lungs, kidneys and heart to bacteria from periodontal infection, and experience suggests the same is true for dogs."

What should a dog owner do?

Numerous myths are associated with the care and health of dog teeth. Many owners believe feeding a dry, kibbled dog food alone will keep their dog's teeth clean. Others offer hard chew treats, such as real bones, rawhide and cow hooves in an attempt to mimic the textures of a carnivorous diet in the wild. While harder foods do have a greater scrubbing action on the teeth, they can't remove plaque below the gum line. "That's the real enemy," said Thomas Mulligan, DVM, a board-certified veterinary dental specialist practicing in San Diego, Calif. "The bristles of a toothbrush can reach into the groove along the gum line. That's where all the action is."

Veterinary toothpastes are available in flavors to tempt the canine palate. They differ from human toothpaste in that they can be safely swallowed. (Dog owners can breathe a sigh of relief they will not have to teach their dogs how to spit.) Many contain enzymes aimed at preventing the mineralization of plaque into tartar. "The ingredients in the toothpaste are not that critical," said Frank J.M. Verstraete, DVM, diplomate of both the European and American Colleges of Veterinary Dentistry, and professor at the UC Davis College of Veterinary Medicine. "It is the mechanical removal of plaque by the brushing that is important." Dr. Verstraete also reported that a British study published in 1997 demonstrated that daily brushing is necessary to prevent gingivitis in dogs.

Not every owner can do that, nor will every dog allow it. Many veterinarians counsel new puppy owners to acclimate their pup to the routine of brushing at an early age, when training is easiest. Most dogs will still need periodic professional teeth cleaning as humans do. Your veterinarian should check your dog's mouth and teeth at every annual exam and recommend when a dental prophylaxis or other care is needed.

Owners often worry about the risks of general anesthesia that is necessary for an effective dental scaling and polishing. "More dogs probably die from bad teeth than from anesthesia," said Don McCoy, DVM, who has specialized in veterinary dentistry for the past 12 years in Portland, Ore. "With the newer gas anesthetics and better monitoring equipment, anesthesia is so much safer now."

Hand-scaling, or scraping tartar off teeth without anesthesia, sometimes performed at home or offered as part of a grooming visit, is less effective. "You can't remove plaque and tartar below the gum line on an awake animal, and that's where the problem is," Dr. McCoy said.

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