One of the more frequent conversations I have with pet owners before or during a teeth cleaning procedure (or dental treatment procedure) is about having to extract teeth. Usually it goes something like this:
Doctor: "Pet owner, your pet has multiple teeth with end stage periodontal disease. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do to fix this, so I need to extract X number of teeth"
Pet Owner: "Oh no! Why so many? Do you have to? How is he going to eat? Will he be in pain?"
Doctor: "Yes, there may be some discomfort, but actually the teeth that are diseased are already causing pain. We will treat the discomfort of extractions with medicine at home after the procedure. He will eat fine, but you may need to soften the food for a week or two. We have to take out the teeth because the disease has progressed too far and there's nothing else we can do."
You may wonder why I'm writing an article about this. I'm hoping to explain a little bit about the mouths of dogs and cats, and the reason why we have to perform extractions, so that it may not be a big shock if your pet needs teeth extracted.
I have heard comments about "vets who likes to extract teeth." Actually, that's not the case; most of us prefer not to. If there are no teeth to extract that would mean that there isn't disease present and your pet is healthier. Extracting teeth is sometimes hard work. Most animal professionals prefer to prevent extractions. The fact of the matter is that most animal patients haven't had the dental care needed to prevent extractions, and by the time I perform a dental treatment procedure it is too late.
Let's think about how we take care of our own teeth. When we are children we are taught how to brush our teeth well before the permanent teeth develop. Then we continue that oral hygiene regimen, usually twice daily, often floss daily, and visit out dentist once or twice a year. We have very clean teeth and periodontal disease is avoided. Humans need all their teeth to chew because we grind our food and cannot swallow it whole, so proper oral hygiene is important to prevent tooth loss. We only have 32 teeth (28 if you've had your wisdom teeth removed), so it's necessary to keep them all healthy.
Now let's contrast what happens with our pets. Most pet owners don't realize that their dog or cat has baby teeth and lose them. Sometimes dogs will not lose all of their baby teeth, and if your vet doesn't notice this, (or if your pet isn't taken in to the vet) those extra baby teeth can cause problems. Most pets will have all of their permanent teeth present by 6 months of age. Dogs have 42 teeth (that's a lot!) and cats have 30 teeth. After 6 months of age tooth brushing should begin, but many pet owners don't do this because they've never had instruction or been told to, and many pets resist it. So if a pet is lucky, they get their teeth brushed occasionally, like when they go to the groomer. It's inevitable that plaque and tartar will accumulate and cause gingivitis. Plaque, tartar and gingivitis wouldn't be a big problem if the pet was given a professional, anesthetized dental cleaning once it started to accumulate. But for a number of reasons this doesn't always happen, so eventually that plaque causes gum and bone damage and loosening of the teeth. Now we have end stage periodontal disease, which requires extractions.
Luckily dogs and cats don't need teeth to eat. They don't grind their food like we do, and we can prepare food for them that's in small bites and soft enough to just swallow whole. In fact, many dogs and cats who have no teeth at all still eat dry food! It's not a terrible thing to extract bad teeth, in fact it usually makes the pet feel quite a bit better. Many clients tell me that after having diseased teeth removed their dog is more active, acting like a puppy again, and is eating better.
Pet owners need to understand that tooth extractions are an unfortunate fact of dental treatment procedures for most pets. However, extractions can be avoided if pet owners will take the necessary steps to try to prevent dental disease. These preventative steps include regular visits for dental health evaluations, regular (daily) tooth brushing, and regular anesthetized dental cleanings.
Author Sarah Bashaw can be reached at El Dorado Animal Hospital, a full service, state-of-the-art veterinary clinic designed with client comfort and patient care in mind.