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Pet Vet: Afraid to have your dog's teeth cleaned? That fear is what puts them at risk

Jeff Kahler, The Modesto Bee on

Published in Pet Help

Sharie takes care of Stumpy, a 7-year-old terrier mix, a neutered male, that lives both inside and outside. Sharie has had Stumpy's teeth cleaned in the past and wonders how often it's necessary. She wants to take care of his teeth but is concerned about the anesthetic procedure when they are cleaned. She has heard that his teeth can be cleaned by a groomer without anesthesia and wondered if that might be a better way to go.

For humans, it's common to have set, regular schedules for dental cleanings, considered important in preventing dental disease. This is not often the case with our companions. It should be.

The reasons we don't routinely have our companions' teeth addressed are many. Veterinarians don't always communicate enough the need for proper dental care in the prevention of dental disease as wells as other diseases that can result from it. Cost also plays a role. For humans, insurance helps reduce out-of-pocket expense. Unfortunately, in veterinary medicine, insurance is less common. As Sharie discusses in her letter, anesthesia is an absolute necessity when performing proper dental cleaning or treatment and this can increase the risk involved. A key point, however: the risk from dental disease almost always outweighs the risk of anesthesia to the patient.

As for having your dog's teeth cleaned by the groomer, I advise against it. Certainly the groomer can be asked to brush your dog's teeth but having them scaled while the dog is being restrained is not a good idea. First of all, it is virtually impossible to do a thorough cleaning on an awake dog. Second, scaling the teeth leaves tiny grooves in the enamel which allow for a much faster building up of tartar. Thirdly, an awake dental patient will not allow probing of the gum/tooth margins and cleaning bellow the gum line, which is absolutely necessary when properly cleaning a dog's teeth. Another important step in proper dental cleaning is polishing the teeth, which removes the tiny grooves mentioned from the scaling process, leaving the teeth ultra-smooth and more resistant to tartar build up.

As for frequency, yearly cleaning is usually adequate in younger patients, but it's not a "cast-in-stone" rule. Some companions may need to have their teeth cleaned more frequently.

Individual companions, like individual people, have different dental characteristics that affect dental health, from how the teeth align, to how the enamel molecules pack together and what type of bacteria live in the mouth. Gum structure and how tightly the gums stick to the tooth root margins can be very critical in dental health.

With aging, the frequency of needed regular dental cleanings usually increases because older dogs can have more health issues that can be impacted by dental disease -- heart disease, liver disease, and kidney disease, for example. These are all worse for your companion than having his teeth cleaned. At the very least, these patients need to have their teeth examined twice a year.

Your veterinarian should be able to perform a thorough dental evaluation along with a physical examination to determine your companion's individual needs. And, don't let age be the determining factor. Older companions are often suffering from severe dental problems because their caretakers are either ignorant of it or reluctant to have them undergo a dental procedure. This is a big mistake for their health and overall life quality. It is no fun to live your life with dental disease and the daily pain associated with it. Remember, the risk of the procedure is far less than the risk of severe health problems.

I can tell you many wonderful stories of how much better patients have felt after their caretakers have allowed them to be treated for dental disease. It truly gives these patients a new outlook on their lives.

(Jeff Kahler is a veterinarian in Modesto, Calif. Questions can be submitted to Your Pet in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto, CA 95352.)

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