Bad breath is caused by the action of bacteria in the mouth, and is an indicator of dental disease. If the problem is not attended to at this stage, it can progress until tooth loss, bleeding from the mouth and/or decreased appetite are seen.
Sometimes dental disease can lead to far more serious problems elsewhere in the body. Bacteria multiply readily in the mouth, and as the gums become inflamed and start to bleed, these bacteria gain access to the blood stream. They circulate throughout the body (a condition called "septicaemia") and lodge in organs, causing abscesses to form. The tissues most prone to this are the heart valves, organs that filter blood (kidney and liver), and tissues with many, very small vessels (lungs and joints). This process can lead to problems such as severe arthritis, or major life threatening illnesses such as kidney or heart failure.
So what can I do?
Have your pet's teeth examined by your veterinarian, and proceed with a professional dental clean if it is recommended. However, long-term control and prevention of dental disease requires regular home care.
Dental home care may include:
Tooth brushing (at least 3 times a week). This is the best form of dental hygiene and many products are now available to assist you.
Raw chicken wings (using Mother Nature's tooth brush). The chewing of tough cartilage and bone scrapes tartar and plaque off teeth.
Dental exercisers, chew toys and special diets (e.g. Hill's t/d diet). These all assist in reducing plaque, but are rarely enough to treat advanced dental disease.
The important thing to remember is to start early. Kittens quickly learn to accept dental home care as part of their daily routine, allowing you to develop proper dental hygiene early enough to prevent problems. However, older animals can also learn and benefit from the same processes. Regular and frequent attention to your pet's teeth will avoid annual visits to the Hospital for a professional dental clean, and will also improve your pet's overall health.
What is involved in a professional dental clean?
Your cat needs to be anaesthetised to carry out a proper dental examination, and to clean all teeth without distressing the animal. In older pets we recommend a pre-anaesthetic blood profile before the anaesthetic.
After anaesthetic induction, a thorough dental examination is carried out. This involves charting the teeth present and assessing their condition, including the degree of tartar, gingivitis (gum inflammation) and any pockets in the gums around the teeth. After the teeth are examined, a treatment protocol is designed. This usually begins with removing tartar above the gum line using a special dental burr. After the visible surface of the teeth is clean, tartar is scraped out of gum pockets by hand.The teeth are then polished using a dental polisher and specialised fine grade paste. The dental procedure ends here if dental disease is not severe, however, if extractions are necessary due to advanced periodontal disease, these would then be performed.
When extracting teeth, the small teeth or incisors are often removed first using a hand-held dental elevator. However, the canine and larger teeth (premolars and molars) usually require the gum to be elevated from the bone, which is then removed by burring with a dental air drill to free the tooth. It is often necessary to cut teeth into root segments using this air drill to allow complete removal of the tooth. The remaining bone is smoothed using a special burr and the gums sutured closed over the socket. When all the dental work is done, the animal is given an antibiotic injection, the anaesthetic gas is turned off, and your pet is allowed to wake up.
Following a professional dental clean, a home care programme is designed for you depending on the severity of your cat's dental disease. As mentioned previously, this may involve regular tooth brushing, feeding raw chicken wings and/or a special diet. One of our staff will discuss this with you and answer any questions you might have when you come to collect your pet. We perform a progress examination to monitor gum healing 7 days after surgery for any animal that has had extractions. We also recommend all pets be examined 6 months after dental cleaning to determine the effectiveness of your home dental care.
Are there any alternatives to tooth removal?Newer techniques now allow us to preserve teeth at times rather than remove them. This may involve root canal work or specialised fillings for eroded teeth. Tooth capping can also be performed, but unfortunately man has not yet found materials strong enough to withstand the forces of nature, thus crowns are prone to breaking if hard objects are chewed. These complex dental techniques would be conducted by a specialised Veterinary Dentist.
How can I get my pet to tolerate tooth brushing?Starting your pet on tooth brushing may seem difficult at first, but with the right attitude and gentle persuasion, you will get there!
Because this is a very new sensation for your pet, take it slowly. Start by handling the mouth gently, using your finger to rub the gum line. A little tuna juice on the tip of your finger helps your cat to enjoy the sensation! Next wrap a piece of gauze around your finger, dip it into water and gently scrub the teeth along the gum line. You can gradually progress to using special animal toothpaste on either an animal toothbrush or a soft children's toothbrush. Human toothpaste is not recommended, and neither is baking soda and salt, since this can cause problems in older animals.
When you first start tooth brushing, just lift the upper lip on one side to expose the outer surfaces of some teeth and brush them by making gentle circling motions from the gums towards the ends of the teeth. Keep the initial period short and don't insist if your pet starts to object. If you manage to clean only one tooth before your pet has had enough, fine. The main thing is to keep it from becoming an ordeal for both of you. Take heart from the fact that in one regard it is easier than doing your own teeth, because you only need to do the outside - the tongue does the inside job for you!
When you have succeeded in brushing some easy-to-reach teeth, go for the complete set. One way to open your cat's mouth is to put one hand across the bridge of the nose, then tilt the head back and hold it steady (similar to when you give tablets). The less you restrain your pet the better. Start with brief but productive bouts of mouth opening and tooth brushing.
Even if you do not get far in the process, always reward your pet. Give praise and a treat immediately after each dental hygiene session. If you make these periods a precursor to more enjoyable things (such as dinner!), your cat is likely to be more compliant.
If you manage a good brushing session three times a week you will save your cat 90% of the dental disease he or she would have otherwise suffered. Brush daily and your pet is likely to avoid gum disease altogether !