It is an insidious disease, infectious and painful, smelly and sickening to look at.
So why do a majority of dog owners do nothing about it? Good question.
According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, more than 80 percent of dogs (and more than 70 percent of cats) will have periodontal disease by the time they are 3 years old.
Dr. Jean Hawkins, a diplomate of the American Veterinary Dental College and a veterinary dental consultant in Boise, said the actual statistic is closer to 80-95 percent of dogs by age 2.
Either way, the numbers are shameful, especially when preventing periodontal disease (commonly called gum disease) is easy.
“I think there’s a resistance because people don’t go to a doctor for their own toothaches; they go to a dentist. As veterinarians, we’re seen as doctors,” Hawkins said.
Which begs the question: Why is it that human medicine - and health insurance - divorces the teeth from the rest of the body? The same issue plagues veterinary schools.
“Dentistry is still taught sparingly in veterinary schools,” Hawkins said. “That’s changing, but today most of the education veterinarians get about dentistry is continuing education after school.”
And yet, all the species of animals that veterinarians treat need dental care. Even livestock.
Think about it. If a pig has gum disease, it hurts to eat, so it loses weight, which reduces its market value.
Yet while the veterinary community is working hard to educate itself, dog owner ignorance persists. Perhaps the most frustrating kind is that based on anecdotal information.
For instance, a professional biologist told me his dog lived to be 15 years old and never once had her teeth cleaned. She was, by his observation, just fine.
His implication, of course, was that all this talk about preventing canine periodontal disease is plain and simple marketing, a way for the veterinary community to bilk pet owners.
“Some dogs, like some people, get along with very little dental care,” Hawkins said. “But 80 to 95 percent don’t.”
Canine periodontal disease is an infection of the teeth and gums. It begins as plaque and calculus (sometimes called tartar) are deposited on the teeth near the gum line, a normal occurrence in every living thing with teeth.
Plaque is soft and colorless and not easily seen with the naked eye. Calculus or tartar is a mixture of calcium phosphate and carbonate with organic material. It is yellow or brown.
Together, plaque and calculus provide a great place for bacteria to grow and periodontal disease to set in.
Dogs with periodontal disease will have bad breath. As the condition worsens, other symptoms will be present: gums are reddened, painful and swollen; gums bleed when rubbed; pus comes from gums when pressed; and the dog loses its appetite and has difficulty chewing.
Small breeds are at increased risk for periodontal disease, most likely because their teeth are crowded into small mouths with lots of tiny nooks and crannies in which bacteria can grow.
The one good thing about canine periodontal disease is it’s easy to prevent.
Here’s what Hawkins recommends:
Brush you dog’s teeth every day. Use a child’s soft toothbrush or one designed especially for dogs (available at pet stores and through pet supply catalogs).
Use a toothpaste designed specifically for dogs. Don’t use baking soda or salt; they can cause heart problems.
If you have several dogs, a smear of doggie toothpaste in each food bowl works. It’s not as good as brushing, but the dog’s saliva will get the toothpaste working to kill bacteria.
Wash food and water bowls. Bacteria multiply quickly in dirty bowls.
Feed mainly dry dog food. Give crunchy treats. Hard foods are abrasive and help keep teeth clean by friction. Avoid feeding food intended for people.
Keep chew toys around. Hawkins said knobby “gumabones” are particularly good.
About once a year (more if you have a small breed)
Have your dog anesthetized by a veterinarian so a thorough dental exam can be performed, including checking behind teeth for infected gum pockets.
Your veterinarian should then perform the same kind of cleaning you get at the dentist - scraping away hard deposits on the teeth, cleaning the teeth, polishing the teeth and applying a fluoride gel. Besides helping ensure a comfortable, healthy dog, regular dental care will make those kisses from your canine pal all the more enjoyable.
Know of a dog-rescue group?
My November column will be about organizations in the Inland Northwest that rescue discarded and abused dogs.
If you’d like your group included, send its name, address, phone number and a description of its mission to me. My address is listed at the bottom of the Dog Calendar that accompanies this column.
Your information must be in my mailbox at The Spokesman-Review no later than Oct. 22.
, DataTimes MEMO: About Dogs appears the first Sunday of each month. Mary Sagal is a member of the Dog Writers Association of America.