Food particles left on or between teeth after eating are broken down by bacteria to form plaque. Over time, plaque hardens into tartar, which is visible as a brown crust on the tooth. Tartar also accumulates under the gums, where it causes gingivitis (red, irritated gums) and eventually periodontal disease (loss of attachment of tooth roots to tooth socket).
By age 3, more than 75% of dogs and cats have gingivitis or periodontal disease. Periodontal disease causes discomfort, bad breath, tooth loss, and can potentially contribute to diseases of the heart valves, kidneys, liver, and immune system.
Cats develop a unique type of dental disease call Oral Resorptive Lesions. These are painful cavities, usually on the side teeth. These cavities are not caused by bacterial decay as human cavities are.
Additional problems encountered include fractured teeth, mis-aligned teeth, retained "baby" teeth, foreign bodies, and oral tumors.
Routine dental cleanings are recommended as soon as gingivitis becomes apparent, or if a large amount of tartar is present without gingivitis. Gingivitis is the last completely reversible stage of dental disease, so teeth should be cleaned before periodontal disease develops. Depending on the individual’s tendency to form tartar, and the frequency of home dental care, dental cleanings are usually needed every one to two years. A routine cleaning includes general anesthesia, thorough scaling of tartar above and below the gum line, polishing, and fluoride treatment.
For patients that have developed periodontal disease, we have a "perioceutic", an antibiotic resin that helps to re-establish the lost attachment of the root to the socket in moderately affected teeth. Teeth with severe periodontal disease usually must be removed.
Fractured teeth are most often removed to prevent root abscesses and alleviate pain. However, if this is undesirable, otherwise healthy fractured teeth can be treated by referral to a veterinary dentist for root canal surgery.
Cavities in cats are not repairable. These teeth are removed to alleviate pain and allow the associated gingivitis to heal. Occasionally, many or all of the side teeth are affected, requiring multiple extractions.
Retained deciduous (baby) teeth and severely displaced teeth cause problems for adjacent normal teeth and are removed. Moderately displaced teeth may be corrected with a referral to a veterinary dentist.
Any other problems detected during a routine cleaning (oral injuries, tumors) are treated as indicated.
Daily to twice-weekly brushing is the best way to prevent dental disease. Most patients will still need the occasional professional cleaning in-hospital, but the frequency can be reduced, and the number of teeth lost to periodontal disease between cleanings can be minimized.
Eukanuba pet foods contain Hexamethyl Phosphate crystals that reduce plaque accumulation and formation. This can further reduce the progression of dental disease between cleanings.
For patients particularly prone to periodontal disease, we occasionally recommend antibiotic therapy for 5 days each month. This is not a substitute for home brushing and professional cleanings, but for certain unlucky patients that require more than annual cleanings, may slow the progression of periodontal disease.