Ask the Veterinarian: What’s that Smell?

Ask the Veterinarian

By Dr. Hagerty and Avery

Bad breath. Often resembling the smell of rotten eggs, mixed with a hint of fermented food. It’s warm, moist, close to your face and truly putrid. Thanks Fluffy. Unpleasant to stay the least, bad breath can also be a tell tail sign of something worse for your pet; periodontal disease.

What is Dental Disease?

Dental disease or periodontal disease is essentially a bacterial infection of the mouth. Depending on the severity of the disease, it begins as a heavy build up of tarter on the teeth. Bad breath is often the first symptom. However over time, and if untreated, it may progress to cause severe loss of bone with marked infection of the oral soft tissue structures. Periodontal disease doesn’t just affect your pet’s mouth; other health problems associated with dental disease include kidney, liver and heart muscle changes. This is related to the constant migration of bacteria and inflammatory components into the bloodstream from the mouth.

Signs of dental disease can include red swollen gums, blood in the mouth, or teeth that are broken, loose, discolored or covered in tarter, a thick yellow chalky build up. Drooling, dropping food or struggling to chew can also be symptoms. Even vague signs, such as shying away from your hand when touching the mouth area, pawing or rubbing at the face or mouth frequently or a reduction in appetite can be clues of dental problems. To complicate matters further, dogs and cats are amazingly stoic beings. If you have ever had a tooth ache yourself, you know the dull aching or even sharp stabbing pain, yet our pets will rarely complain. 

Unfortunately, periodontal disease is chronic and the damage can be irreversible. Just like humans pets are only given one set of adult teeth, which require care throughout  life. However, there are ways to slow the progression of disease, freshen Fluffy’s literally “rotten” breath and make them healthier and happier.

Have you taken a peek at your pet’s mouth lately?

Dental Check Ups:  

Start with routine annual to biannual dental checks. These are an important part of wellness exams performed by your veterinarian. Additionally, routine dental cleanings by your veterinarian can help prevent the development of periodontal disease before the damage is done. A study conducted in 2014 by Veterinary Pet Insurance Co., found that the average cost per pet to prevent dental disease is one-third of the average cost of treating dental disease. Dental charting, careful examination and probing of the gum lines, as well as oral radiographs are normally part of a dental cleaning, which gives us comprehensive information of what’s going on in your pet’s mouth. Dental disease isn’t just surface deep; over half of the tooth is hidden beneath the gum line, which means the extent of disease may not always be visible to the naked eye.

What can we do the other 364 days of the year?

Finding the time to brush your own teeth can be a struggle at times it seems. I remember many mornings during my veterinary internship when I hadn’t made it home since 7 AM the previous day, had spent the night on call, still had scrubs on which had an assortment of unknown bodily substances on them and had fifteen minutes before morning rounds. Things needing to be accomplished in those 15 minutes included shower, food, brush my teeth or sleep. Brushing my teeth seemed like an effort. Grossly enough, that awful fuzzy feeling you have on your teeth when you forget to brush them is a layer of biofilm made up of decomposing food particles and an army of disease-causing bacteria. Yuck. This hardens into a layer of yellowish oral tarter (also known as calculus) within roughly 24 hours. Unfortunately, even valiant efforts to brush this newly formed layer off with a toothbrush are futile once it has hardened. Professional scaling is needed, which requires a trip to a dentist for you and a trip to a veterinarian for your pet. However, daily brushing is the best prevention of this building up, for both you and your pet.

Take the Leap:

First, stop by your veterinary clinic to get help on how to start brushing your pet’s teeth and find out what options there are for oral health. If you choose to go the traditional route, start with the right toothpaste and toothbrush. Choose a small, soft bristled toothbrush. Pet specific toothpaste is often chicken, seafood, malt or other palatable flavours. Human toothpaste can upset their stomachs or damage their gums. Starting out with soft food on your pet’s toothbrush and allowing your pet to lick (but not chew) it off can be the first step. Make sure to praise them with a treat after a few licks. Slowly build up to using pet toothpaste and gently lifting their front lip and whipping the toothpaste onto their front teeth. Stop and reward for tolerating this new and strange request. Slowly increase the contact time with the front teeth for 3-5 seconds over the next week. Begin brushing farther back in the mouth, focusing on the outside of their teeth and not worrying about the inside of the teeth. Reward and praise with treats at each step. This process may take several weeks to a month before you’re able to brush their entire mouth. Have patience, and make them realise that tooth brushing can be an enjoyable activity. Lastly, don’t get discouraged.

The classic toothbrush and toothpaste isn’t the only option anymore. Dental chews, dental wipes, oral solutions and water additives are just a few examples of other resources your veterinarian can advise you about.

Although we may be putting the Tooth Fairy out of a job (once your pet is fully grown), take the time to build healthy dental habits with your pet starting today. Instead of pushing Fluffy away because of his shockingly bad breath, use this opportunity to begin a new routine.

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