Despite giving our pet crunchy dry food, hard objects and flossing rope chews, many still have breath that can stop a freight train. Bad breath can be an early sign of oral disease and its associated pain and discomfort. Unfortunately our pets can’t talk about their oral pain, and therefore simply the act of eating alone does not constitute a clean bill of health! Obviously they want to live so they are driven to eat. But you must carefully monitor for bad breath and changes in eating behavior.
More pet owners, unfortunately, are realizing too late the importance of good oral health for their animals. One warning sign may be changes in a pet’s eating habits. The pet becomes “picky.” It may go to the food bowl frequently but then turn and not eat. When the pet does eat, it either gulps its food quickly to get it past its teeth, flip its head when eating, or drop its food. Cats frequently start shaking their head and pawing at their face as if something is stuck between their teeth. Your pet will also gradually start to lose weight due to the diminished food intake.
Bad breath, drooling, and facial swelling are all signs that your pet is experiencing oral problems. Often problems in the oral cavity manifest themselves in other bodily systems, for example, eye and nasal discharge may indicate underlying tooth root abscesses which affect the surrounding organ systems.
The most common causes of oral pain are: periodontal disease, fractured teeth, bad bites or malocclusions, and cancer.
Periodontal disease is caused by a gradual accumulation of tartar and accompanying bacteria. Periodontal disease affects all the tissue that holds teeth in the mouth, from the gum tissue to the bone itself. Invading bacteria and their waste products inflame the mouth causing the gums to become red and bleed, and bad breath is very common. Teeth become mobile as the bone of the infected jaw starts to recede, eventually leading to jaw fractures if not corrected. In such cases, dental radiographs and timely treatment by a veterinary dentist can often save your pet’s teeth.
Fractured teeth occur at all ages, but in dogs and cat’s they frequently occur at early ages. Kittens running into walls often break their fang teeth. Puppies can damage their teeth when playing “tug of war” with their owners or bigger dogs. Giving animals hard objects like bones, or anything that may break our own teeth, can also damage their teeth. Most pet owners don’t realize that their pet’s teeth are actually weaker than our own human teeth!
Fractured teeth cause infections that travel down the tooth root into the surrounding bone. These infections can enter the blood and affect other distant organ systems like the heart, liver, and kidneys. Facial swelling under the eye or jaw is also a sign that pet owners need to recognize as possibly caused by tooth problems. Dental radiographs allow proper treatment with root canal therapy. In some cases, the fractured tooth which has already caused extensive bone destruction is considered beyond salvation and should be surgically extracted by a specially trained veterinary oral surgeon, with advanced skills in removing teeth without causing further trauma which could possibly lead to jaw fractures.
Another dental problem is “Bad bites” or malocclusions which cause teeth to erupt into abnormal positions. These improperly aligned teeth traumatize soft tissue which can possibly lead to infections, loss of teeth, or holes in the roof of the mouth. Often the bad bite is due to retained baby teeth which do not allow the adult teeth to take their correct position. Thus, susceptible pets have two of the same teeth occupying the same position at the same time, causing crowding, collection of tartar, and the adult tooth erupting into the wrong position. This problem can be picked up early in both cats and dogs if pet owners realize that this potential problem occurs when the animal’s adult teeth start to erupt, between the ages of 5-7 months.
If corrected early by extracting the baby tooth, the adult tooth will erupt normally. If left unattended, the misdirected adult tooth will cause trauma to both the soft tissue and the bone of the opposing jaw, leading to serious problems which often show up as sneezing and nasal discharge.
Lastly, the oral cavity is the third most common area for the development of cancer. As in people, early recognition and diagnosis can be life saving. Unusual swelling of the face or lower jaw needs to be evaluated carefully. Redness or dark pigmentation of skin in or around the mouth that grows in size should be evaluated immediately by an oral specialist. Pet owners who take the time and regularly look at their pet’s mouth can detect potentially ominous signs and act in a timely manner.
As you can see, the mouth can either be the gateway to health or disease. Careful attention to any oral problems can extend the life expectancy of our pets. As with our own oral hygiene, regular evaluations at home are very important to discovering any problems that can become serious and affect our pet’s general health.