Comprehensive  Ways To Delightful Healthy Pets
MANY YEARS AGO, WHILE WORKING AT THE ZOO, I MET THOR, the polar bear. He was anesthetized on the table awaiting a root canal. He had huge teeth, claws like rakes, and a massive athletic body. He was 100 percent carnivorous. For his species, any living thing is prey. This instinct is strong, even in captive polar bears.
If people have tried to befriend polar bears, they have not lived long enough to write about it.
Thor had been drooling and pawing at one side of his mouth for a week. The probable cause of Thor’s colossal toothache was the olive bread and marshmallows he was being given as treats. This hadn’t occurred to me at the time. I don’t remember any discussion about the cause of Thor’s impending root canal. He was suffering and we were there to help him—business as usual.
DON’T BITE THE HAND THAT CLEANS YOU
A GNAWING CONCERN FOR owners is when their pets have bad breath or trouble chewing. There is a correlation between these conditions and significant health risks.
Dental disease can contribute to heart and lung disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, kidney disease, leukemia, cancers, abscesses, and gum disease. It is not just about a pretty smile or a clean bite. Dental care reflects systemic health.
It is possible to clean teeth—without anesthesia— in a friendly, tolerant animal.
Many pet owners are nervous about their pet receiving a dental cleaning because of the risks associated with anesthesia. While this is a valid concern, many animals require full anesthetic to properly clean the teeth under the gums, treat cavities, take dental radiographs, or do extractions. If an animal is properly assessed and has a good temperament, it can also be possible to chip off tartar and to scale and polish teeth without using anesthesia. If the main dental problem is just tartar, improving breath, dental condition, and overall health can be done without anesthesia. For animals that cannot tolerate anesthesia, cleaning the teeth this way can be a useful alternative.
At my practice, we schedule an hour long cleaning appointment and have extra staff available to help calm the animal and hold the lips up. With calm pets, we often get all the teeth done in one appointment. If an animal needs a break, we schedule several shorter visits.
After chipping off tartar, there is the possibility of finding a more sinister issue below. I make sure clients are aware that this could require anesthesia to repair or remove.
WHAT IS THE SOURCE of that troublesome bacteria? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind—literally. Fresh air, not saliva, is one of the significant causes of tartar buildup. Saliva has enzymes to help keep the mouth clean after a meal. Many veterinarians have noticed that “mouth breathers” (chronically nervous/panting dogs, brachycephalic dogs) have more trouble with tartar buildup. As the oral cavity dries out, tartar, which is sticky, builds up more quickly from breathing through the mouth rather than the nose.
ONCE TEETH ARE CLEAN, you can keep them that way by brushing them—even if you do it only a few times a week. Tartar takes two to three days to fully set. Brushing a pet’s teeth every day is difficult for most people, including me. Use dog, not human, toothpastes—the fluoride in human toothpaste is too strong for them. Avoid dog toothpastes that have sugars or artificial sugars in them. Or use a paste of baking soda and water. Add a little ground fennel or peppermint oil (a few drops) for breath issues. Once tartar is solidly on the tooth, it usually won’t come off with just brushing. Don’t fall back into the “dry food will chip that tartar off the teeth” mentality. It is a fallacy.
Dental disease is also affected by genetics, chewing behavior, nutrition, systemic disease, breed, treats, and even stress. Not every dog is born with a perfect set of teeth or an even bite. Many dogs are born with a tendency to harbor bacteria that produce tartar.
CROOKED OR BROKEN TEETH
A TOOTH THAT IS cracked or broken doesn’t always present a health risk. If there is no pulp (nerve and blood vessels) exposure, and the animal isn’t obviously in pain, a veterinary dentist can try a conservative approach. If there are signs of an abscess or pain, prompt action may have to be taken. Signs include a dog avoiding chewing, pawing at its mouth, foul odor from the mouth, and excessive drooling. Injured teeth can be extracted, or you can opt for a root canal or other restorative solution. I often refer patients to veterinary dental specialists.
DENTAL CHEWS AND BONES
CHEWING ON CERTAIN TYPES of bones and rawhides can help reduce tartar and keep the gums healthy. Every dog chews a bone differently. Some are gulpers. They swallow large pieces of the bone. Gulpers generally don’t improve their teeth and don’t do well with bones/rawhides. But calm chewers can benefit from a good American-made plain rawhide, bully stick, yak milk bone, ostrich tendon, or other animal-parts chew. Raw bones can be great, although a little messy. (My dogs chew them outside.)
Never offer cooked bones since they splinter off in dangerously sharp pieces that are serious trouble for a dog if swallowed. It’s best to keep a close watch on an animal while it is chewing any bone, to avoid problems. And consider throwing out the bone before it becomes small enough to swallow whole.
I do not recommend offering compressed vegetable/wheat bones since these add wheat or soy to a dog’s diet. There are better ways to keep a dog’s teeth clean and keep a dog healthy, including good moist food, brushing, and animal-product chew treats.
BAD BREATH IN A dog can signal health problems such as gastrointestinal issues, systemic disease, dental trouble, or gum disease. It is surprising how many owners view their dog’s progressive bad breath as an unavoidable part of pet ownership. Discuss halitosis with your vet and rule out these treatable problems.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF AND YOUR VET ABOUT DENTAL CLEANING
1. Does your pet have the temperament that would allow someone’s hands in their mouth and not bite the hand that cleans them?
2. Will your pet think the dental procedure is terrifying? If your pet is going to be so stressed by being held still, it may be better to use an anesthetic.
3. If your pet does stress easily, are there any other significant health issues stress or struggling could worsen (heart conditions, disc disease, etc.)?
4. Do any teeth need to be extracted or radiographed?
5. Are there oral diseases such as masses, gum disease, severe gingival recession, or fractured teeth that should be addressed with an anesthetic procedure?
6. Are there any other reasons you might want to have an anesthetic procedure anyway, such as a mass removal or a neuter? Could both be done safely at the same time?
7. How expert is the person doing the dental?
8. Is a vet there if needed?
9. What will be involved in the dental procedure?
In Thor’s case, everything about his root canal procedure was a success. And he definitely needed anesthesia for the procedure. We were all happy he didn’t wake up in the middle and eat us for a snack. He went pain-free back to the Bear Line, the enclosure where the bears are housed, and I moved on to vet school. It was many years later when I saw Thor again. I was at the zoo with my son, Sean. The keepers gave us a personal tour. They also let him feed Thor his favorite treat—olive bread.