Dental Disease and Dental Pain in Pets

“The vet said my dog needs his teeth cleaned, but he’s eating fine. I think he’s ok. After all, wolves never went to the dentist.”

Have you heard this before? Or maybe even had the same thought yourself? Did you know veterinarians recommend dental cleanings because dental disease leads to pain? This is the number one reason your veterinarian wants to take care of your pets’ mouth. They want to keep Fluffy and Fido comfortable and pain free.

Now, pain in our companion animals is always a hard thing to see. They are pre-programmed to hide any signs of weakness. A painful animal is a weak animal, and a weak animal ends up as someone else’s dinner. Since we can’t ask our pets how they feel, or what hurts, we have to pay close attention, and know what we are looking for, to notice when they are uncomfortable.

Dental pain can be particularly hard to catch because dogs and cats don’t usually stop eating, even when their mouth hurts. Eating is essential to living. If a wild animal stops eating, they die. So, they keep eating through the pain. Sometimes owners appreciate that while Fido and Fluffy are still eating, their appetite seems to have dropped off a bit. Like when you have a chronic, splitting, headache. Everything hurts, but you’re still willing to eat a little – especially if there is something extra tasty available, like chocolate cake. So, while Fido may turn up his nose at his regular kibble, he may be perfectly happy to gobble up crunchy treats, or snarf up his food if you add a little chicken to the top. Just remember, that just because they are eating, doesn’t mean they are pain free.

Pets with dental pain may also not play with their toys the way they usually do. The frisbee enthusiast waits until the frisbee hits the ground, instead of catching it in midair, or the tug-of-war fanatic would rather play chase. They still seem to be plenty energetic, just different. With our pets, if there’s something different, there’s usually a reason, and dental disease could be it.

One of the biggest differences we can see in pets with dental disease is that they seem to slow down. If we think again about having a chronic headache, this makes sense – being in constant, unrelenting, pain saps your energy and your enthusiasm for life. You would maybe choose to nap too instead of going out with friends to a loud movie or to run around the park. Dogs and cats seem to be the same. We have seen time and again, owners who assumed their companions were slowing down as they aged, but then see their old companion re-emerge a few days after their dental procedure.

It’s always important to pay close attention to the subtle signs that your pet isn’t quite right, but a lot of pets may not show any of these subtle symptoms at home. That’s why the vet checks your pet’s mouth at every exam to look for evidence of disease that could lead to pain. They look for heavy calculus, which is that thick, greyish brown chalky material that covers the teeth. Calculus is a great place for bacteria to hide while they eat away at the tissue in the mouth – even destroying the bone. The vet looks for gingivitis – that bright red line, or puffiness, of the gums when they are inflamed. They check for bad breath – caused by a bacterial infection in the mouth. Finally, they look for missing, loose, broken, or misplaced teeth. Once the disease in the mouth has progressed to the point where teeth are loose, broken, or abnormally placed, we know there is pain present and the only way to remove the pain is to remove the tooth.

Dental health awareness month is not just about giving our pets a pretty smile and fresh breath (though a dental cleaning will make all those kisses MUCH more enjoyable!). It’s about making sure our pets’ mouths stay healthy and pain free.

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