Many of us grew up hearing our elders proclaim that animals’ mouths are actually cleaner than ours. Often, the most enduring cliches are the ones that resonate with the most wisdom. This little gem, however, could not be further from the truth. If you’ll pardon the pun, it is one of my all-time pet peeves.
Veterinarians now know that some of our pets’ most common health problems are rooted in dental and periodontal disease. Here are just some of the serious conditions that often begin with “doggie breath”.
When bacteria builds up on our pets’ teeth and gums, it goes directly into the bloodstream. These organisms ultimately end up in the heart, causing infections in the valves. Over time, the heart valves will fail to close properly, and the heart will weaken as it strains to compensate for the damaged valves. This process can lead to congestive heart failure, or CHF, which can be difficult and expensive to treat. Pets with CHF usually need medications and monitoring for their entire lives. While the medications can prolong their lives, they do not cure the condition. By aggressively managing dental disease, we can greatly reduce the risks of CHF to our pets.
The same organisms that cause plaque and gingivitis eventually make their way into the kidneys. Here they will cause infections that lead to urinary tract disease and kidney failure. While there are treatments that can prolong the lives of pets in kidney failure, the prognosis is generally poor. As is the case with CHF, even the limited treatments that are available can be costly with uncertain outcomes. Kidney failure is particularly common in cats.
Upper Respiratory Infections
When bacteria take over our pets’ mouths, they inhale germs with every breath. This can lead to infections in the lungs and upper airways, that if left untreated, can progress to pneumonia. Often the first sign of an upper respiratory infection is a chronic cough.
If you’ve ever had a toothache that won’t go away, you’ve probably gotten grouchy after a few days. Pets that are in pain due to dental disease may lose interest in playing with toys or interacting with family members. Worse yet, pain can lead to a shorter temper, which may make your pet more likely to bite. Sadly, the most common victims of dog and cat bites tend to be children.
So how do you know if your pet has dental disease?
A healthy mouth should contain pink gums and white teeth. While some staining of the teeth is normal, the teeth should not look dull. If you see crusty, dark-colored debris, blood or pus along the gumline, it’s time for a dental cleaning. Dental disease often starts on the back teeth, where tartar buildup can easily go unnoticed. In these cases, the first sign of trouble is often a change in eating habits. Pets that lose interest in food, especially dry food, are probably not being fussy or finicky. They may be trying to tell you that it hurts to chew. This is especially true of cats.
If all else fails, the nose knows. The next time Fido licks your face, have a sniff. Contrary to yet another popular belief, “doggie breath” is not normal. It is a clinical sign of a disease that can pose serious threats to your pet’s health. Thankfully, dental disease can easily be prevented. And to quote one of my all-time favorite cliches, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!
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