Today we performed dental cleaning on a couple of 10-years old German Shepherds. The tartar on their teeth was pretty thick. One of them lost a molar. The tartar had eroded its attachment to the gums, and it was pretty much falling out, despite being free of cavities. When I go to the dentist, the hygienist often remarks on how much tartar I have, despite the fact that it is invisible to me. I wonder what they would say if I went in like these dogs with tartar 2mm thick.
Dental calculus ("tartar") is what you get when plaque forms on the teeth and mineralizes. It’s the brown junk around the gum-line (or all over the tooth, if you just let it go untreated). The stuff you can see makes for an ugly smile, but it’s the tartar up underneath the gum-line that causes your pet to lose teeth. It is half bacteria by weight, and the bacterial growth and by-products have a bad odor: "the germs that cause bad breath", as the mouthwash ads say. Aside from an ugly smile and bad breath, it seeds bacteria into the bloodstream on a constant basis. Where do they end up? In the body’s filters, the kidneys.
Over the years, having a cruddy mouth causes you to lose some of your kidney function prematurely. Since you start out with four times as much kidney function as you need, this doesn’t bother you much early on. On the other hand, if you lose some kidney function to other diseases, you’ll wish you had some more to spare. It’s no coincidence that kidney failure is one of the most common causes of death in elderly pets.
Daily brushing is the best way to prevent it, but not many pet-owners practice it. Hard chew-biscuits help only about one out of ten dogs to prevent tartar build-up. Rawhide chews do better, helping fifty percent of dogs. Hard chew-toys like Nylabones help up to seventy percent of dogs, IF they will chew on them. Daily brushing with a soft toothbrush is the best.
Once the tartar is there, cleaning requires anesthesia. Think how irritating it is when you have two hands wielding tools in your mouth, and it’s not hard to see why dogs and cats wouldn’t sit still for it. Fortunately, modern anesthesia carries few risks in these procedures, especially with modern monitoring equipment.
Dr. Jan Bellows is a veterinarian in Florida who is one of the premier dental specialists for animals. His website is well worth checking out.