For most creatures, the mouth is a primary gateway to the outside world; the health of your pet’s oral cavity, including its teeth, is vital for the maintenance of whole-body health. A pet’s (particularly a dog’s) mouth is a primary site of disease. Periodontitis (inflammation of the tissues surrounding a tooth) and dental calculus (an accumulation of mineral salts on teeth) are respectively the No. 1 and 2 problems seen in companion animals older than 7.
It has been estimated that periodontal disease is present in 50 to 80 percent of all dogs, and the incidence may reach 95 percent in dogs older than 2 to 3. And cats suffer similar tooth and mouth problems. The teeth of other animals, including horses and rabbits, continue to grow throughout the animal’s lifetime, and if they are allowed to overgrow or to grow at an abnormal angle, they actually can prevent the animal from chewing properly.
Furthermore, mouth disease can extend from the local area to result in ailments that affect other organ systems, possibly because buildup on the teeth and gums can house toxins that facilitate other diseases (researchers have isolated endotoxins from calculus residues on dogs’ teeth). There is evidence that periodontitis also predisposes animals to a number of diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and respiratory disease. And there is anecdotal evidence that dental disease also may be responsible for other chronic diseases such as arthritis.
Unfortunately, when it comes to pointing the finger of blame for much of our pets’ dental problems, in the words of that imminent health professional, Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” We have created at least a two-fold problem. First of all, commercial foods are typically soft and they don’t cleanse teeth effectively. Secondly, we often breed our pets for appearance rather than function, and the result may be mouths in which the teeth can’t grow into the natural alignment that allows for a normal bite.
Prevent a Common Pet Problem
Periodontal disease is the general term used to denote diseases of the periodontium (tissues surrounding the teeth), and it includes gingivitis, periodontitis and periodontal abscesses. Periodontal disease is by far the most common oral disease found in all species and is arguably the most common disease condition seen in a small animal veterinary practice. The severity of periodontal disease correlates with the quantity of plaque and calculus present on the teeth, as well as with the age of the animal.
Plaque is a soft, colorless mass, found on tooth surfaces, starting at the crown and extending deep down into the sulcus (the groove or “trench” that surrounds a tooth). Plaque requires special dyes to visualize, and it is not a food residue; rather, it is a thin film of several bacterial species. A soft diet does, however, induce more plaque formation and higher levels of gingivitis than does a hard diet. Unless it is removed, plaque formation is extensive after a day or two — further reason for daily brushings and offering hard foods (or bones) on a frequent basis.
Surface irregularities on the teeth, the most common of which is calculus (see below), increase plaque accumulation. Scratches on the teeth also may gather plaque. Scratches can result from brushing with a stiff-bristled toothbrush or when metal scrapers are used to remove calculus — thus the importance of dental polishing after every dental cleaning procedure.
Calculus is a mass of calcium salts precipitated from saliva. Calculus is seen easily and appears as varying amounts of an off-white, yellow or brown crusty material on the teeth — often concentrated at the tooth-gingival interface. Calculus acts as a focal point that attracts and retains plaque, a characteristic that is even more important in the creation of disease than is its function as a mechanical irritant.
A soft diet correlates positively with periodontal disease — animals on hard diets tend to have fewer problems with periodontal disease. However, not all pets on soft diets have excessive problems with periodontal disease, and some critters on hard (dry food) diets still develop severe periodontal problems — perhaps related to genetic predispositions. In addition, an animal on a calcium-deficient diet can develop severe periodontitis at an early age.
In gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), there is a noticeably darker red color where the tooth meets the gum line. This early inflammation may lead to excessive growth of the gums, and as the gums grow, they tend to move away from their once-firm contact with the tooth. To diagnose gingivitis, a blunt-tipped probe is used, pushing it around the edges of the teeth to determine the depth of the sulcus.
The treatment for gingivitis is the removal of bacterial plaque from the surfaces of the teeth (tooth brushing) on a consistent basis.
Symptoms to Watch For
Several symptoms can indicate a problem of the oral cavity, including a change in eating habits; pawing at the mouth; abnormal salivation; oral hypersensitivity; facial swelling; draining tracts; obvious blood or bloody (or brown-colored) saliva; sneezing and nasal discharge; abnormal behavior (some critters, especially old and cranky ones, can become even crankier when their teeth hurt); and eye changes (infections around the upper teeth or upper jaw area often cause swellings around the eyes).
While all the above symptoms can be significant, the first and most important tip-off to dental or other problems of the oral cavity is halitosis, or bad breath. While most of the disease conditions of the oral cavity may be out of sight, they are almost never “out of smell.” A healthy pet’s breath does not smell bad (perhaps not as sweet as my wife’s breath, but not bad nevertheless). Any time your pet’s breath has an off odor, be suspicious of dental or oral problems.
While plaque is difficult to see without staining aids, calculus is easy to spot: it is a chalky or crusty-looking, off-white to brown accumulation on the surface of the teeth, and often it is associated with a reddened gum line.
One of the problems with diagnosing tooth conditions is that, oftentimes after an initial painful period, the pain and any other associated symptoms go away … but the condition remains — further reason for a complete inspection of all the far reaches of the oral and oropharyngeal cavities.
Professional Dental Cleaning
Almost every veterinary clinic in the country has an ultrasonic dental machine that is an efficient tool for cleaning the teeth. However, equally important for professional cleaning is a quality tooth polisher, and not all practices are up to date with the newer models. In addition, not all clinics use trained technicians to do the cleaning, and proper training can be an important component for ensuring quality professional tooth maintenance. To be sure you are getting the best in service, it never hurts to ask about your technician’s qualifications.
Note that animals need to be anesthetized to do a thorough job of examining the teeth and gums and to really get the teeth clean down deep into the sulcus.
I recommend that any sick or older animal (beyond about 7 years of age for dogs and cats) have a screening blood test (CBC and blood chemistry) to be sure that there is nothing physically wrong that could increase the risks from anesthesia.
Depending on the individual animal and on how well you and your pet are able to keep her teeth clean, the time between professional dental cleanings will vary from about once every four months to every four years or so, throughout your pet’s lifetime.
For all dental procedures, whether simple cleaning or more complex procedures, I recommend a pre- and post-procedural therapeutic dose of antioxidants (vitamins A, C and E along with herbal antioxidants) and immune enhancers, such as echinacea (Echinacea spp.). As always, I try to avoid any unnecessary antibiotics.
Holistic Dental Care
For humans, ideal dental care consists of twice-daily tooth brushing; rinsing with a mouthwash; flossing; tongue cleaning; irrigation; professional cleanings; and supplements that support oral health. For our pets, however, most of these are nearly impossible — how do you teach an animal to spit out the mouthwash, or lie still for flossing or tongue cleaning? So, we compromise and rely on daily brushings, oral-health food supplements, chewing on hard food (foods designed to act as a dentifrice and/or bones) and periodic professional cleanings.
Almost any herb or herbal combination that has antibiotic, vulnerary (wound-healing) or astringent activity will be useful in helping to fend off oral disease — the key is to find herbs that your pet doesn’t hate the taste of. I look at herbal teas as a mouthwash substitute. It’s true you can’t get an animal to swoosh the fluid around in the mouth and then spit it out. But if we use teas that can be swallowed, just the contact of the tea with the oral cavity and teeth can be beneficial.
Green tea (Camellia sinensis) is known to be especially beneficial for preventing oral and dental problems. (In humans, green tea has been shown to help prevent cavities, and there is some evidence that it may reverse the progress of oral cancers.) First, try the brewed green tea, straight, in your pet’s water dish. If he rejects that, try adding a little meat broth as flavoring. For drinking teas, also consider calendula (Calendula officinalis), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Any of these will help prevent oral disease, and chances are good that your pets eventually will begin to like their taste.
For treatment of oral lesions, a strong herbal tea or tincture can be squirted into the mouth. Or, you can make a slurry (use a teaspoonful or so of the herb, boiled with a small amount of water — just enough to make a thin paste) and apply it directly to the lesions. Herbs to consider for treatment include barberry (Ber- beris vulgaris), red root (Ceanothus americanus), agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). Unfortunately, many of these herbs are not especially tasty; you may need to experiment to find the least distasteful.
There are at least two aspects of an animal’s diet that are important for maintaining dental and oral health: first, the dentifrice (cleaning) activity of the diet, and second, supplements that can help maintain healthy teeth and gums. Remember that the cleansing activity of foods and bones is important. Check out the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s accepted products, found at www. avdc.org. Nutritional supplements for oral health include:
• Vitamins A, C and E, for their antioxidant activity. Vitamin C also helps the healing process.
• Coenzyme Q10 is a potent antioxidant that reduces damage to cells, and has been shown to be especially beneficial for reducing gingival inflammation and periodontal pocket depth in humans.
• Bioflavonoids, such as rutin and hesperidin, are required for the formation of collagen, the protein building block for gum tissue, cartilage and bone. They also play an important role in maintaining a competent immune system. These are available in some toothpastes, or they may be added to your pet’s diet as a supplement. Check with your veterinarian for appropriate dosages of these supplements for your pet.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary med- icine and veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for 10 years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri. Visit our website, www.HerbsForHealth.com, to order Dr. Kidd’s pet-care books.
Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.