April 22, 2015
What’s a subject you can sink your teeth into? Dentistry! (oh, go ahead and smile. Ha! Your teeth are showing!). Puppies are born “gumming it” and gradually little nubs of baby teeth come in. Baby teeth are correctly called “deciduous” teeth, which I find hilarious because there are deciduous TREES that lose their leaves every fall, like an oak or a maple, and who compares losing a body part with the tree in their front yard?
By 6 weeks of age most puppy teeth, all 28, have fully erupted and are quite sharp. Teeth are valuable for ageing a young puppy. The first deciduous incisors fall out around 4 months of age, the canine or fang teeth at 6 months of age. Most dogs have all 42 of their adult teeth by 8 months of age. Whew- no wonder they teethe on shoes and garden hoses! Exceptions to this rule are every Yorkie on the planet and a few other super teensy breeds who prefer the “delayed dental eruption” plan, their personal dental plan wherein they often refuse to lose ANY baby teeth naturally. These retained or leftover baby teeth must be pulled later under anesthesia. Two sets of teeth may seem kind of crocodile-cute, but the reality is that they will entrap food and eventually rot out both baby and adult teeth. We’re talking real health issues here, so much more than a pretty smile.
Dogs use their teeth like we use our fingers – teeth are their primary tool for prehension, picking up, grabbing, testing, tasting things. Teeth keep the tongue firmly seated in the mouth, instead of hanging out. Teeth, by the simple act of chewing, keep the jawbone firm and strong – without teeth the bone will lose density and atrophy, maybe fracture. Not too long ago dentures were very common amongst our grandparents and we spoke of “gumming it” and how the dentures didn’t fit well – due to lose of bone density. Dentures aren’t an option for our pets. Teeth, of course, help our pets to eat. A service dogs’ teeth may be used to apprehend a criminal or to gently tug a handicapped person into a position of safety.
One big difference for a pet versus a person in the world of dentistry is the rather sad fact that when a puppy loses its baby teeth, it only needs care for its adult teeth for 14 or 15 years, on average – in a human, we are expected to make ours last 80 years or so. I’m not sure ours are constructed any better. But it does explain the emphasis people place on twice yearly teeth cleanings, daily brushing and flossing. Did you know that we recommend daily brushing of your dogs’ teeth? Annual cleaning would be awesome.
When your veterinarian gazes at your dogs’ mouth and politely recommends a dental cleaning, is it just to bring back a whiter smile? Probably not, though whisking away the brown moss and calculus covering those teeth would make everyone happier. All teeth start out covered in white enamel. The salivary glands empty over the back teeth, providing gentle lubrication of the gums and lips and even a small amount of enzymes to start food digestion. Anyplace that you have moisture will attract bacteria, and it is bacteria, living on the sugars from food, that leaves that soft yellow build-up on the teeth called plaque. Thousands of bacteria are piling up on your pets teeth right now! Plaque can be removed with a toothbrush. Toothpastes are formulated just for pets, in flavors they like (think chicken or salmon), fluoride added because this helps kill the bacteria that causes plaque, and without the detergents that make our toothpaste foam up (look – it must be working!) but might irritate a dogs sensitive stomach if swallowed. Brushing your dogs’ teeth daily is well worth it.
Over time plaque mineralizes and turns brown. This hard brown stuff is called “calculus” and must be scraped off – but wait a minute before you reach for your pliers or allow some unlicensed person to “clean” your dogs’ teeth. As you scrape and wrench inside your dogs’ mouth, you literally gouge the enamel, leaving deep ruts that bacteria settle into even more rapidly, and yes, you have just assured a Fast-Track pass to faster decay and damage. The ultrasonic scaler used by veterinarians and dentists alike is safe and effective at removing plaque and calculus. Any micro-abrasions created on the teeth surface are then smoothed out by the polishing afterwards (and you thought it was just foo-foo stuff to make them shine! Silly you).
I used to be more polite. I might look in a mouth and say a tooth was mobile. I’m not sure what people thought – I wanted to test drive it to see how it handled corners? I’ve dropped that approach. Now I just say their dogs’ teeth are rotting in their head. That sparks a little interest. If the dog cooperates, I like to put everything on full display. All dogs should have teeth. Their importance to the body’s over-all health is often underestimated. In just the last two weeks I have cared for several interesting, though not unusual, cases. I had an older Poodle whose upper fang tooth abscessed. The base of that tooth rests against the thin plate of bone that separates the nose from the mouth. When the root rotted so did the bone. Now there was a hole or oro-nasal fistula present. Imagine sucking bits of food and water up your nose every time you ate. Oral surgery was required to fix the problem. A Dachshund presented with a fat swelling below her left eye, not an eye problem, no sir, but an abscessed big premolar leaking into the sinus below the eyeball. A major tooth extraction and antibiotics fixed that. A 3 month old Queensland pup has a baby tooth in his lower jaw erupting inwards : when he closes his mouth the incorrectly placed tooth is literally poking a hole into the roof of his mouth. Ouch! We’re contemplating interceptive orthodontics. And these were very ordinary cases, expected in an ordinary week. Teeth are meant to last time a life time – with proper care.
Christine B. McFadden, DVM
Valley Animal Hospital, Merced