By Christie Long
February has long been designated by the American Veterinary Medical Association as Pet Dental Health month.
At this point, most dog and cat owners understand that just like people, companion animals need routine dental care that includes a regimen of brushing, dental treats and regular periodontal therapy performed by a licensed veterinarian.
Dental disease can involve so much more than just bad breath, although this is certainly the impetus that often gets owners to bring their pets in to the veterinarian’s office. Recently I saw a patient whose owner, like so many others, complained of foul-smelling breath. But she had also noted that he seemed to chew only on the left side of his mouth.
The amount of tartar that was visible on his teeth was minimal, and his gums looked good as well. But his owner’s observations were enough to suggest that there might be something seriously wrong in his mouth; something that couldn’t be detected even with a thorough oral examination.
Under anesthesia the source of the problem was quickly located. The second molar on the upper right side of the mouth, a tooth that is impossible to see or touch during a routine awake oral examination, was severely abscessed.
The roots were exposed, and it was no doubt painful for this dog to chew on the right side of his mouth. The tooth was extracted, the pocket left behind was cleaned out and the resulting defect stitched closed.
Further examination of the dog’s mouth uncovered a tiny, abnormal tooth in the lower right arcade, just below the abscessed tooth I had just dispatched.
I also noticed that the gum tissue in this area was slightly red and inflamed, although there was no visible tooth, other than the abnormal one just behind it. This prompted me to take an X-ray of this area, to see whether anything strange might lurk below the gum line.
Sure enough, right where the inflammation existed, I discovered that one of the roots of the lower first molar, a large tooth with three roots, was present under the gum line. It’s possible that the tooth never fully formed, but my suspicion is that a previous veterinarian tried to extract this tooth, and didn’t finish the job.
Examples like this are why dental X-rays are becoming a standard part of dental procedures for pets. Certainly this increases the cost of the procedure, but x-rays help us to diagnose problems that can become a source of chronic pain and infection for our patients. Skilled technicians can take radiographs of the entire mouth in five to 10 minutes, allowing the veterinarian to assess the mouth for severe bone loss, tumors and abscessed tooth roots. Digital technology allows instant results and sharing with board-certified radiologists if necessary to diagnose difficult cases.
If you’ve been putting off addressing your pet’s oral health, now is a great time to do it.
Christie Long is a veterinarian at the VCA Animal Hospital in Fort Collins, CO. Long left her job in software sales in 2000 to travel for 13 months. Along the way, she was touched by the plight of the animals she saw and somewhere in the Nepalese Himalayas she vowed to return to school to become a veterinarian. While she often finds end-of-life situations heart-wrenching, she considers herself blessed to be called upon as a trusted adviser to families during difficult times. Dr. Long’s family includes her husband and travel partner, Wiley, their son, Wiley IV, their dogs Pancake and Gizmo and cats Sneaky and Sidh.