Taking care of a pet's teeth not only can give the animal a better quality of life, it also can lead to longer life.
"Twenty years ago, dogs died at around age 10 but they now live to age 14 to 15," Steve Thompson, director of the Pet Wellness Clinic at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, in West Lafayette, Ind., told United Press International. "That's a 50 percent increase in a relatively short period of time, and the reason for it is better nutrition, better medical care and better dental care."
Just as in humans, a tooth cavity or tooth trauma can result in an infection that can spread out from the root of the tooth to the bones supporting the tooth.
A painful toothache can result, the pulp of the tooth dies, but the infection remains active and continues to spread and destroy tissue, Thompson said.
"Cats are more prone to dental caries (cavities) and dogs are more prone to a tooth fracture or trauma, that can result in an infection," said Charles Williams of The Animal Dental Clinic in Vienna, Va. "By brushing when the plague is still soft, the rate of tartar is reduced and there is evidence to suggest that with less calcification of the tartar, there is less periodontitis."
Plaque and tartar, also known as calculus, accumulate at the base of the teeth, especially in the back and sides where it can't be seen, Williams said.
The plaque contains bacteria and infection is more likely to develop spreading from the gums to the ligaments and bone that support the teeth. This loss of support causes the teeth to become loose and eventually fall out.
Some dog foods have developed special agents and formula to reduce tartar on pets's teeth.
"The Hills canine t/d and Eukanuba dog food have developed foods to reduce tartar build up and both are effective," Williams said. "The Hills t/d kibble has more fiber added so it increased the amount of time chewing so that there's a better chance of tartar removal."
While dog biscuits have been touted for cleaning the teeth of dogs, they really don't do much for tartar and are more of a treat, Williams said.
"Changing the behavior of animals, to accept teeth brushing, and the behavior of the owner to do pet teeth brushing is key to developing good oral hygiene," Williams said. "If an owner did brush a pet's teeth every few days, that would be great. It's most effective if it becomes a habit and not just an occasional thing."
Many pet owners might not even recognize toothaches or other tooth pain in an animal.
Nick, a third-generation Frisbee-catching dog, has accumulated numerous titles and many trophies. Nick and his owner have a very strong bond and are very observant of each other, yet owner Bob Evans told UPI he had no idea when Nick had broken an upper canine tooth.
"We were in New York and I left him in a travel crate in the hotel room when I went to dinner, and someone from the hotel came in to put out mints. Nick did not like the intrusion and apparently kept trying to bite through the wire pet carrier," Evans said. "But, I didn't notice anything and the next day we went to Madison Square Garden and Nick won the championship and it wasn't until we were riding in a taxi with a veterinarian tech that he noticed that the tooth was broken."
Nick's canine teeth are important to his ability to catch a Frisbee disk in his acrobatic positions and a titanium tooth made of tungsten replaced the broken tooth, Evans said.
Part of the problem with pets and teeth problems is that the pet often will not indicate anything is wrong, despite being in a good deal of pain.
"For decades some believed that dogs didn't feel pain and many still believe that because animals are so good at hiding it," said Gary Burt, a veterinarian at the Animal Care Clinic in Oxford, Ohio. "In the wild, an injured animal becomes a target for predators so most often a dog or cat won't cry or whimper."
Even if a pet owner does sense a pet dentist is necessary, finding one might not be easy. While some veterinarians do perform dental services, there are fewer than 100 board certified pet dentists in the entire country, said Williams, who was instrumental in establishing the board certification for veterinary dentists.
"In 1988, we got provincial approval and we got full approval in 1998. Part of the problem is that animal dentistry is taught in only a handful of veterinary schools and most board certification in this field has been through training," Williams said. "The training is rigorous and each year we add about another 10 board certified veterinary dentists."
According to Williams, the delay in training board certified dentists is that veterinary schools have been funded by state legislatures, and most have been reluctant to add another specialty to veterinary care.
However, most agree the trend for veterinary dentistry is to continue to grow. More pet owners are learning of the dividends that good oral hygiene gives animals. Nine percent of pet owners brush the teeth of their pets and the number increases each year.
According to the American National Pet Owners Survey, in 2000 some 14 percent of pet owners bought toothpaste for dogs, and in 2002 it rose to 15 percent.
More owners also are seeking dental services. In 1998, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association said, 10 percent of pet owners had dental work done on their pet but that rose to 15 percent in 2002.
"Since animals are so good at hiding pain, a dog can have a fractured tooth or an abscessed molar and we the owners might not notice, but it could manifest itself as a behavioral problem," Burt said. "If an animal abruptly changes behavior, having a veterinarian check its teeth for problems could save both pet and owner a lot of grief."