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Open Wide and Say “Woof”: Pet Dentistry Basics

Bubba the Bulldog walks into the veterinary clinic complaining of a toothache. He says that his lower right molar hurts. The veterinarian asks Bubba to sit back in the dental chair. Bubba, a very obedient Bulldog, sits in the chair, opens his mouth wide, and lets the veterinarian look with a bright light at the molar in question.

“It’s a broken tooth,” the vet says.

“Really?,” replies Bubba.

“Really,” says the vet. “Been chewing rocks again?”

“Old habits die hard,” Bubba says.

The vet takes an x-ray and sees that the crack extends below the gum.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to pull this tooth,” the vet says.

Bubba nods his head. Again, Bubba opens wide and lets the veterinarian numb the tooth, then remove it.

If only this was the world we lived in! Being a vet would certainly be an easier job if our patients could tell us when and where they were having dental discomfort. It would also be wonderful if they sat in a dental chair like people and allowed us to perform a full oral exam with any necessary treatment.

Unfortunately, most dental discomfort in our pets goes unnoticed. Because our pets are so motivated by their drive to eat, it is rare that a dog or cat stops eating because of dental disease; even when they have many diseased teeth and are experiencing pain.

Although our pets can’t tell us how they are feeling, similar dental disease in human beings is known to be very painful. Like humans, dogs and cats have sensitive nerves in their teeth that lie beneath the hard exterior. When dental disease occurs, it affects the nerves inside of teeth, which become inflamed, and inflamed nerves hurt - a lot.

Because Bubba the Bulldog would not actually sit and “open wide” in real life, we have to approach dentistry in animals differently than we do in people. Dogs and cats don’t understand that we are trying to help, and are even more reluctant to have their teeth examined if they have oral pain. Therefore, putting our pets fully under anesthesia is necessary to provide dental care.

Remember, not all dental procedures are created equal. Be skeptical of any service that offers “anesthesia-free” dental cleanings, or dental procedures without x-rays. These services are likely to miss disease below the gumline.

All of us want our pets to lead happy, healthy lives without pain. Dental discomfort is a common and often ignored source of pain for our pets. Fortunately, dental procedures that include general anesthesia, a complete oral exam, and x-rays can let us rest assured that oral pain in our pets is a thing of the past, even if Bubba the Bulldog can’t tell us where it hurts.

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