Getting to the root of the matter Print E-mail
News - Rubrieke
Monday, 18 May 2009 14:48
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Dr In this column veterinarian Dr Liesel van der Merwe provides practical assistance for common problems in companion animals. She is a specialist physician at the Onderstepoort animal teaching hospital and a senior lecturer in the section of small animal medicine. Send your questions to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Dr Liesel van der Merwe

Doesn’t Fluffy look wonderful, freshly bathed and brushed; her hair is shiny and her eyes sparkly, but then she opens her mouth . . . aaarghh.

Many people ask me what they can buy to make their dog’s breath smell better. My answer is to look into the mouth first. No amount of dental chews or breath-fresheners will help if your dog or cat has dental disease.

Some animals seem predisposed to develop dental disease and small dogs are definitely worse than the larger breeds, maybe because they get so much older. Adult dogs have 42 teeth and adult cats only 30. If a dog’s tooth breaks, the root needs to be removed whereas cats are predisposed to getting caries (decay/holes) along the gum line. If a cat’s tooth breaks, the root is resorbed.

Dogs are especially prone to deposition of debris, such as impacted hair, food and foreign materials, between the teeth which acts as a nidus for bacterial accumulation. Teeth are normally covered with a thin film of protein substances derived from saliva and the gums, called the pellicle. If the pellicle ages, as happens with our dogs who don’t brush twice a day, it modifies into a structure promoting bacterial colonisation.

This substance is called plaque. Plaque accumulates and then solidifies by calcification into tartar. Infection causes inflammation and recession of the gum line. Once this has happened the tooth is irretrievably compromised.

It is important to look right into the back of the mouth to assess the teeth. The molars are often the worst affected as food is inclined to accumulate and get stuck in that area. The upper canines are also often severely affected. In smaller dog breeds, the roots are so long that infection or extraction can result in an opening called a fistula between the nasal cavity and the mouth, causing a nasal discharge or snorting when eating.

Tartar requires a special procedure called ultrasound scaling, which is performed under general anaesthesia because pets don’t respond well to the command, “open wide . . . wider”.

After the tartar has been removed the teeth are polished to smooth the enamel and slow down the reaccumulation of tartar. Plaque starts forming within 24 hours of a dental scale and polish. Teeth that have exposed roots due to receding gums are best extracted. Your pet will be more comfortable with only a few healthy teeth than a mouthful of infected teeth and the chronic discomfort this causes.

The diet we feed our pets means that they do not really use their canines, which were designed to catch prey and tear into meat. Most of our dogs and cats can, and often do, swallow their pellets whole. Once all damaged and exposed teeth have been extracted and the remainder of the teeth have been cleaned, a dental hygiene program must be started. It helps to give small dogs pellets to get them chewing, and not only soft food. A variety of chews are available, rawhide and synthetic, which will maintain oral health due to their abrasive action.

Hard dental chews such as bones and hooves may increase the risk of tooth fracture and there is always the risk of intestinal obstruction. Premium diets contain a substance which retards the build-up of tartar by binding calcium, which is present in the saliva, and thus reducing tartar formation.

Prescription diets with high-fibre pellets, which encourage chewing, have been developed to promote dental health. Brushing the teeth is effective only if performed consistently. These measures will delay the build-up of tartar, but routine dental treatments may still be required.


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