By the time a puppy reaches the age of 3 years, 80 % will have periodontal disease! This surprisingly high number is even more shocking when you realize that this is something that is preventable simply by starting and continuing good dental hygiene and care very early in your dog's life. Periodontal disease causes persistent bad breath, pain and tooth loss in your canine friend. Good quality dental care for your dog promotes increased longevity, decreases pain, and results in an improved quality of life for pets. We owe it to them to develop good dental practices and hold to them throughout their lives.
Dogs are "diphodont" meaning they like many other mammals including humans have two sets of teeth during their lifetime. The baby teeth of puppies are known as "deciduous' teeth. Puppies are born with no teeth and the deciduous teeth start to erupt at 3 to 12 weeks of age starting with the front incisors and ending with the back premolars. There are usually 28 deciduous (baby) teeth visible by the twelfth week after birth. Puppies have 28 deciduous teeth, 14 maxillary (upper) and 14 mandibular (lower). As a puppy ages, the various types of baby teeth will be replaced at different rates by their permanent adult teeth. By the time the puppy is 6 months old, he will have his 42 permanent (adult) teeth which will include 20 maxillary (upper) and 22 in the mandible (lower mouth).
Puppies should lose a deciduous tooth before the corresponding adult tooth emerges. If a puppy tooth is still in place when an adult tooth begins to show (a retained deciduous tooth), you should see your veterinarian so that the dog's permanent tooth is not affected.
Dogs have four basic types of teeth, each with a specific function. The Incisors are the 6 center front teeth on the maxilla (upper) and mandible (lower jaw). Their primary function is to cut, nibble, and pick up objects and groom. The Canines are located directly behind the incisors and are longer and pointed at the tip. The purpose of the canines is to grasp and tear meat and food with great pressure. There are 2 canines in the maxilla and 2 canines in the mandible. The Premolars are wide, pointed teeth found behind the canines further back in the jaw. These are the next four teeth caudal (going towards the back of the mouth) to the canine teeth. They are wider, flatter with bumpy surfaces which are used to grind, cut, and break food into smaller pieces when chewing. There are 16 premolars in an adult dog.
The Molars are the teeth the furthest back into the mouth. The ten permanent molars are large and flat surface makes them perfect for their purpose of grinding and chewing.
The dog's tooth consists of a crown that shows above the gum line, a smaller neck at the gum line and a deep root tied to the jawbone, similar to our own human teeth. While humans have only one root to several roots for each tooth, dogs have 6 permanent teeth that have 3 roots each and 14 teeth that each have 2 roots. Even though the canine tooth only has one root it is long, curved and can be wide in young dogs, making root canal therapy a complex procedure.
Enamel, a crystalline basically inorganic material, covers the surface of the tooth above the gum line. This is the hardest substance in the canine body and protects the structure of the tooth. Under the enamel in the canine tooth is Dentin, an acellular material that runs from the enamel of the tooth to what is called the pulp which is found inside the tooth. The pulp of the dog's tooth is contained inside the root canal(s) and in what are called pulp chambers in the tooth itself. The pulp holds the blood vessel, nerves, collagen, connective and lymph tissues-all of which are living substances. Cementum, similar to bone, covers the tooth roots and attaches to the periodontal ligament that holds the tooth in place on the animal's (alveolar bone) jaw.
Surrounding gum tissues, which are called gingiva cover the alveolar bone that support the teeth. The attached gingiva adheres to the alveolar bone and the free gingiva forms a pocket called the gingival sulcus. This grove or sulcus holds a substance that includes cells to fight microbes and bacteria. It is at the level of the gingival sulcus that periodontal disease takes place. Bacteria enters the sulcus and the dog's immune system cells try to protect the periodontal tissues.
During this battle the enzymes released from the dogs immune system fighting cells actually break down collagen which are the supporting structures of the tooth. This battle leads to increased pockets, bone loss, tooth mobility, pain and infection. The spiral of destruction continues until the bacteria can be slowed by professional dental care and daily tooth brushing.
Good dental care should begin with your puppy: early, gently and daily! This means you must start the brushing habit early on. The best way to introduce your puppy to regular brushing is to be very positive about the process and slowly start by just lifting the lip and looking at the mouth. Then progress to lifting the lip, look and touch the tooth gently with your finger but do not attempt to brush yet. Next do the same as before only add touching one tooth with a brush. Eventually start to move the tooth brush in a circular fashion across all the teeth.
This gradual method of introducing a dog to regular brushing works also for those older dogs who come to you as rescues or who we have simply been "too busy" to brush. For brushing, you may find the fingertip brushes work best on the puppy or a dog new to brushing. However an electric tooth brush can do an excellent and effective job if it is tolerated by your Kerry.
Early signs of gum which should not be ignored include swollen and reddened gum tissue as seen in the photo.
Tenderness and reluctance to eating or chewing should also be an alert to you that a dental examination is needed. Veterinarians should do a complete oral examination as part of their routine examination. In addition to looking at the gums of your Kerry, your veterinarian will also be checking for plaque and tarter build up on your dog's teeth, fractured teeth, oral masses, missing teeth, extra teeth, abnormal teeth as well as examination of the tongue. In many cases, your veterinarian will recommend a full professional dental cleaning for your Kerry, which means performing what is known as a complete oral examination, professional teeth scaling above and below the gum line as well as intra-oral dental radiographs if indicated under a general anesthesia. While every owner weighs the use of anesthesia versus the risks in their Kerry, anesthesia is needed to perform an effective and safe dental scaling for the following reasons provided by the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC):
- Dental tartar is firmly adhered to the surface of the teeth. Scaling to remove tartar is accomplished using ultrasonic and sonic power scalers, plus hand instruments that must have a sharp working edge to be used effectively. Even slight head movement by the patient could result in injury to the oral tissues of the patient, and the operator may be bitten when the patient reacts.
- Professional dental scaling includes scaling the surfaces of the teeth both above and below the gingival margin (gum line), followed by dental polishing. The most critical part of a dental scaling procedure is scaling the tooth surfaces that are within the gingival pocket (the subgingival space between the gum and the root), where periodontal disease is active. Because the patient cooperates, dental scaling of human teeth performed by a professional trained in the procedures can be completed successfully without anesthesia. However, access to the subgingival area of every tooth is impossible in an unanesthetized canine.
- Inhalation anesthesia using a cuffed endotracheal tube provides three important advantages - the cooperation of the patient with a procedure it does not understand, elimination of pain resulting from examination and treatment of affected dental tissues during the procedure, and protection of the airway and lungs from accidental aspiration.
- A complete oral examination, which is an important part of a professional dental scaling procedure, is not possible in an unanesthetized patient. The surfaces of the teeth facing the tongue cannot be examined, and areas of disease and discomfort are likely to be missed. Safe use of an anesthetic or sedative in a dog requires evaluation of the general health and size of the patient to determine the appropriate drug and dose, and continual monitoring of the patient. Veterinarians are trained in all of these procedures.
Although anesthesia will never be 100% risk-free, modern anesthetic and patient evaluation techniques used in veterinary hospitals minimize the risks, and millions of dental scaling procedures are safely performed each year in veterinary hospitals.
For these reasons, you should never allow dental scaling procedures be performed on you Kerry without anesthesia. There is a pseudo-procedure known as "anesthesia-free dentistry', which is more accurately described as non-professional dental scaling by the AVDC that you may see advertised. This "anesthesia-free" cleaning is performed not by a licensed veterinarian but by persons without the training and skills of your veterinary professional. If no anesthesia is used, your veterinary professional will not be able to safely access those areas below the gum line to provide the most effective scaling needed to insure your dog's healthy mouth. Dental work without anesthesia will only remove the dental tartar on the visible surfaces of the teeth, which has little effect on a pet's health and provides a false sense of accomplishment. The effect is purely cosmetic.
What can you do to improve your Kerry's dental health?
The gold standard for healthy teeth and gingiva (gums) is Brushing! Brushing, brushing and more brushing! Daily brushing will make a significant difference to your Kerry's teeth, gingival and breath.
In addition, your veterinarian can offer a variety of products to help reduce plaque and the development of disease. One of these is a barrier sealant to help prevent the buildup of plaque. This is applied once after a professional teeth cleaning at the veterinary office but then needs to be done once a week by the owner to continue the protection. However using this sealant, which is sold under the name of OraVet, or any of the products available at your veterinary office, does NOT replace daily brushing!
While there are dental diets such as Hill's Science Diet t/d and others have proven to help prevent plaque and tartar build up, there is no study to prove that dry dog food prevents plaque over canned food. The key is still daily brushing.
Your veterinary office may carry products that are safe and effective for plaque and tartar control such as Veggie-Dents and dental "rawhides." As a general rule, any treat marked with the VOHC seal (Veterinary Oral Health Council) of approval has been proven to reduce plaque and calculus whether it is found at your veterinary office or your favorite pet store. Any chew toy with a slight flex that is not harder than teeth are typically safe for dogs to chew on without fracture of the teeth. This includes items such as Greenies and flat pieces of rawhide.
In selecting a toy for your Kerry, take a good look at the surface and hardness of the toy. Any toy with a harder surface than the enamel of teeth can cause fracture of the teeth. This will lead to pulp exposure with leads to pain, pulp death and tooth infection. Toys/chews to be avoided include real cow bones, hard plastic toys and cow hooves. Any toy with an abrasive surface such as a tennis ball or hard plastic can wear down teeth and expose the pulp canal. Select chew toys that are more flexible than teeth and have a smooth surface for a safer option.
Regular brushing, the use of dental plaque gel, dental diets if needed, careful thoughtful selection of toys and chews for your Kerry combined with periodic examination by your veterinarian and professional teeth scaling under anesthesia when indicated will optimize life-long oral health for your Kerry, making for a happier Kerry and happier owner.