January 25, 1995
By Vicki Croke
We never used to brush dogs' and cats' teeth and they were always fine. Right? Wrong, say the experts who get asked this question all the time. Periodontal disease is the most common disease in dogs. Dental hygiene for our pets gives them a better quality of life and perhaps even a longer one. Keeping their mouths clean avoids dental diseases, rotted teeth, malnutrition (pets won't eat if it's painful) and even systemic problems- live and kidney aliments- caused by bacteria entering the bloodstream. But, everyone always observes, no one brushes the teeth of wolves or lions in the wild, so why should our animals need it? Most wild animals have shorter lifespans than domesticated pets, so their teeth don't need to hold up as long; they don't have the same soft diet as domesticated pets; and many don't face the genetic problems some of our dog breeds do. Teeth get crowded in the mouths of tiny dogs with pushed-in faces such as pugs and Pekingese.
Dogs and cats don't get cavities the way humans do, says Jennifer Dupre, a veterinary dental technician at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital. But they can suffer from rotted teeth and gum disease because of the buildup of tartar of calculus (my dog may have calculus in her mouth, but I know it's geometry she has on her mind). And cats (about 70 percent) often develop a line of erosion that travels straights across the tooth, damaging the whole thing.
Veterinary dentist Laura LeVan, who practices out at Tufts in Grafton and other clinics, performs all kinds of procedures you would find at your dentist's office- she scrapes and cleans, does root canals, fits teeth for crowns and - yes - even fashions braces (though not really what we picture and never for cosmetic reasons). And just about all of it is done under anesthesia.
Scraping and cleaning runs about $100 at most vets, but the other procedures can run into several hundred dollars. Though LeVan helps animals hit by cars or injured in, of all things, ball-catching accidents, much of what vet dentists do is treat what is preventable in the first place.
And here's the rub: The way to avoid all of this is by brushing your pet's teeth every day. If the seems extreme, take the case of the miniature schnauzer who convinced LeVan to switch from general practice to dentistry. The dog, who appeared to have a tumor under its eye, was lethargic and not eating well. LeVan mentioned all of this to her own dentist, got some advice and ended up treating the little dog's dental problems. After the procedure, LeVan says the older dog began to act "like a 2-year-old." From then on, the owners took great care of the dog's teeth (even flossing daily!) and it lived to be 18.
LeVan is so sold on this health maintenance that she wishes there were a way to get horses' teeth brushed too. Not all vets are so progressive; many won't even bother to talk to you about brushing you pet's teeth. But considering how expensive treatment can be, here's the quickie guide to whiter, brighter and healthier teeth for your pet: