Keep Pets' Choppers in Tip-Top Shape to Protect Their Health

CNN News Wire | 2/1/2010, 6 p.m.
When 8-month-old Astana started getting her adult teeth, her owner, Gayle Warren, didn't expect any problems. She has a number ...

When 8-month-old Astana started getting her adult teeth, her owner, Gayle Warren, didn't expect any problems. She has a number of Black Russian terriers and developing new incisors was never a big deal with her other dogs. But Astana had a condition known as "twinning," where two teeth form in the same area. It can cause discomfort, overcrowding and early tooth decay. Warren decided to take Astana to a specialist in animal dentistry to have the extra teeth removed.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, Warren is unusual. The association estimates about 80 percent of people brush their teeth every day, but far fewer pet owners do the same for their furry friends. In fact, very few even think about their pet's teeth.

"Most people have no idea that dental health is so important to their pets," says Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, a spokesperson for the association. "That's why we designated February as Pet Dental Health Month."

According to the association, periodontal disease is the most commonly diagnosed problem in dogs and cats. The organization estimates that by the age of 2, 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats have some form of periodontal disease. It has been linked to diabetes, strokes, kidney disease and other life-threatening disorders. It can lead to painful infections within the mouth; in severe cases these infections can spread and become life-threatening conditions.

"We've even seen problems with heart disease in pets," says Lutschaunig, "because the inflammation from periodontal disease can cause cardiac problems."

Dr. Barron Hall runs the Animal Dental Clinic in Vienna, Virginia. He performs root canals, extractions, crowns, even puts braces on his four-legged patients. Most never complain above a whimper. But he says a lot of his two-legged clients are shocked when they're told their pets have serious dental problems.

"Because the teeth are hidden behind their lips and they're eating well and they're wagging their tails, everybody thinks everything is fine," says Hall.

"I've seen animals that have come in that haven't had a procedure done in 10, 13 years," says Hall. "And they come in here and their mouths are a mess and the animal leaves with no teeth."

But Hall also says a lot of vets themselves don't know much about animal dentistry. "Truthfully, I think it goes back to veterinarians and veterinary school and that we're not taught dentistry, and so that's a big problem," he says. "Its not a major core in any curriculum. We get cardiology, we get ophthalmology, we get surgery, we get dermatology, we get internal medicine, but dentistry is sort of an elective."

So what's the best way to keep your pet's teeth healthy? Hall says to try to brush them daily -- if your pet will let you. If your pet won't let you, the association recommends you have your pet's teeth examined and cleaned professionally once a year.

Also, vets say watch your animal's diet. Soft food collects on the teeth and forms tartar at the gum line, so adding some dry food to an animal's diet could help. "Often small dogs eat soft food, while larger dogs are more prone to eat dry," says Lutschaunig. Hall agrees; he says he sees more dental problems in cats and smaller breeds of dog, especially those under 20 pounds.