By Dr. Dave Thompson
Whenever I go to my own dentist for evaluation and cleaning appointments, my hygienist always asks, “Dr. Thompson, are you having any problems or sensitivity with your teeth?” Unfortunately, information on whether pets are feeling pain is much more difficult to obtain. When I am admitting my pet patients for dental evaluation and cleaning appointments, I always ask the parents/family members of my patients if they have noticed any symptoms of oral discomfort. Even when a cat or dog has a dental problem that we know is uncomfortable or painful, the family seldom observes any evidence of a problem. It is well documented that pets, having originated from wild animals, often try to hide discomfort and chronic pain because it would be viewed as a sign of weakness by other animals who might try to take advantage of this weakness.
I want to tell you about an interesting case I recently cared for. Rufus and Molly are two six year old Wire Hair Fox Terriers who live together and are extremely cute and greatly loved. They came in together for oral evaluations and dental cleanings under anesthesia. The family who are very attentive to them reported no signs of oral discomfort. Both dogs were quite calm and affectionate and appeared to enjoy the visit and interacting with me.
When I did a full oral examination of Rufus under anesthesia, I found a cavity or carie in an important upper canine tooth. The hole in the enamel was quite small and was hard to see because it was partially covered by gum tissue. This cavity is a typical cavity in a dog in that it has a small, difficult to see, hole in the enamel which becomes larger within the tooth. Because pets do not complain and because many oral abnormalities are difficult to see in awake patients, families seldom see the problems. Many cavities that we see have gone on so long and are so large that they have destroyed too much of the tooth, and the tooth cannot be saved. It is a shame to lose a tooth, but what is more important is that the pet experiences discomfort and pain for some period of time and does not know how to tell us. People have their teeth cleaned and fully examined every six months, so problems like cavities and cracked teeth can be detected and treated early. Think of how painful it would be to have a large decaying or infected tooth for months or years if you couldn’t express how much it hurt!
The fact that pets tend to hide oral disease such as periodontal disease, cavities, growths, infections, broken teeth - and the list goes on - is very important. If pets have the recommended yearly oral examination and cleaning, problems would be caught early, there would be far fewer extractions, discomfort would be alleviated and the cost of oral care would be less. We all have been taught that prevention is best. Fortunately the cavity I found in Rufus had not been there long. An x-ray showed that the internal damage was mild enough that the tooth could be saved. The gum tissue was retracted to allow the cavity to be treated, the dead and damaged dentin from bacteria was removed with a high speed drill, the dentin was bonded (to eliminate sensitivity) with a polymer and solidified by shining an ultraviolet light on it, the hole was filled with composite in steps, and then a sealant was bonded onto the surface of the repair. Yes, the tooth looks fairly normal and is not unsightly but what is really important is that the tooth is now comfortable and has been saved.
Rufus and Molly went home shortly after the procedures and had a comfortable, restful night AND comfortable mouths.
Please feel free to attend our free evening talks on pet oral health in our client education room with refreshments. We cover common dental problems, the impact of oral disease on quality of life and longevity, and how to perform easy oral home care (with a demonstration on Dr. Thompson’s dog, Ellie) that will allow your pets to maintain a comfortable mouth. Unfortunately 99% of pets in America do not experience oral comfort throughout their lives. Additionally, universities estimate 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have periodontal disease by age 3 years. Periodontal disease is not just an old age disease in pets as it typically starts at an early age. Please allow us to provide you with information that will benefit your pet.