NORTH: The truth behind the smile

North Peace Creature Feature

northDoes a shiny, white smile always mean a healthy mouth for your pet? Unfortunately, despite the best intentions of pet caregivers, a shiny white smile may actually be hiding serious, painful dental disease that is threatening to whole body health.

But why is dental health important to my pet, you ask? Isn’t it enough to have a pretty smile and fresh breath? Just as in humans, dental hygiene throughout life is important for overall body health. Life expectancy is up to two years longer in pets with good dental hygiene.

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Considering that our furry family members don’t live as long as us, that is an increase of 15 to 20 per cent more time with them. Pets with good oral health have a better quality of life. They are less likely to have problems with their organs (including their heart, liver, kidneys and pancreas) from bacteria spreading from their mouths, and are less likely to live with chronic mouth pain. This pain can often go unnoticed because most pets will continue to eat even with what we would consider to be excruciating pain, such as when we get a tooth root abscess.

These problems can start young. As with human children, where problems can start as soon as the baby teeth first appear, our furry youngsters are also affected early. By three years of age, 80 per cent of pets have signs of dental disease. Unfortunately a small percentage of them go on to need full mouth teeth extractions as early as five to six years of age. A really sad situation.

Home care like brushing, dental diets, dental chews, and oral rinses are the cornerstone of keeping your cat or dog’s mouth healthy. Again, like humans, even with great daily care, it can still be necessary to have professional cleaning to get those teeth really clean again. The trouble is that not every dentistry is created equal, and simply scraping the tartar off of the visible surfaces of the teeth may leave them looking clean but it doesn’t necessarily leave them healthier, and may hide serious problems.

As veterinarians, we make our first line of assessment by looking at the teeth above the gum line on your pet’s wellness exams. We look at the amount of plaque (stinky, slimy bacteria-filled film), the amount of tartar (concrete-like mix of bacteria and calcium), gum recession, movement of the teeth, pain and oozing pus. This allows us to score of the mouth with an internationally-recognized dental disease scoring system and decide on the best way to improve the health of the mouth.

But what if the teeth above the gum line aren’t showing us the truth? And is it possible for teeth to lie? Removal of plaque and tartar on the larger surfaces of the teeth certainly makes them look prettier, but it misses the critical areas between the teeth and below the gum line next to the important tooth roots.

Non-veterinary dentistries are performed on awake, potentially moving pets, and only the area above the gum line is allowed to be cleaned. This leaves bacteria untouched in exactly the places that they are most likely to severely damage the teeth. The bacteria can secretly be destroying the enamel and roots, moving into the bloodstream to travel around the body, or making a painful abscess, all while the pretty white teeth above are sparkling. This leads to times when what veterinarians can see doesn’t match the true health of teeth, and this can lead to delays in getting the medical attention they need and inevitably teeth being pulled.

None of these avoidable situations are anything that a pet lover wants to see with their loved one. Keep an eye out for our next column where we discuss what is involved with a complete dentistry, and why anesthesia doesn’t have to equal high risk for your favourite fur baby.


Dr. Katharine North (née Moody) has been a resident and active participant in the Fort St. John community since her family immigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom as a child. Dr. North spent many hours at the North Peace Veterinary Clinic as a student and joined the practice as a veterinary associate upon graduation.

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