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Never Too Old to Learn

My biennial pilgrimage to the Western Veterinary Conference is over and I find myself, as always, energized. After thirty-six hours of class time, my mind brims with new information and improved understanding. I am also confused and conflicted about how to put this newfound knowledge to work. It’s the mark of a truly valuable educational experience. I call this condition P.S.S. (Post-Symposium Syndrome). So many things, once familiar and sensible, have been transformed. The veterinary world has become a different place. This time my PSS is about one of the most common animal health problems: dental disease.

During a class on “Advances in Veterinary Dentistry,” the professor uttered a simple and inarguable-but-mind-shaking truth. “Half of the patients who visit your office,” he said, “suffer from dental disease. It makes them sick. It causes them pain. It shortens their lives. Why aren’t you doing something about it?”

Arrrgghh! Guilt! He’s absolutely right, especially about the 50% figure! Half of the patients who come into my office DO have dental health problems. Obviously, I’m not doing a good enough job of helping people understand the importance of dental care to ensure those animals will have long and happy lives.

See for yourself: Lift your dog or cat’s lip (on either side, towards the corner of the mouth) and take a look at the teeth. Are they shiny and white? If your pet is over five years old, chances are there’s a layer of yellow crud plastered on her teeth. The material you’re seeing is dental calculus - calcified plaque – a substance we should think of as a mineralized metropolis of bacteria. Take a sniff: That rotten meat odor means the bacteria are happy and healthy, living the good life while making your pet sick.

How about the gums? They should be a healthy bubble-gum pink. Are they red and swollen? If so, your pet has “gingivitis.” When plaque pushes the gums back, lifting them off the teeth and uncovering the tops of the tooth roots, it’s called “periodontal disease.” That’s the last step before tooth loss. Now think about it: If those were YOUR teeth and gums, how would it feel? Do you really believe that just because your pet doesn’t mope and moan about dental pain, that his teeth don’t hurt?

Animals accept the pain as just another part of daily existence, but only because they don’t understand that something can be done to change it. Are you willing to allow your pet to live in pain every day? Are you willing to allow preventable dental disease to promote heart failure or liver disease or kidney failure? To cut her life short? That’s the real meaning of a decision to ignore your pet’s dental disease.

No one questions the need to perform routine maintenance on our cars. We know what will happen when we fail to change the oil, service the battery, or follow through with the small-but-necessary tasks required to keep our machines in good running order. We keep our anti-virus programs up-to-date because we know what will happen when we fail to protect ourselves from the threats we know are out there.

Why do we pretend our pets are any different? They can’t floss. It’s our job to keep them healthy and pain-free with regular dental care. That doesn’t necessarily mean daily brushing (although it’s best). There are lots of other options, all of which help. Save yourself a bundle by doing regular preventive maintenance instead of allowing problems to get out of hand. That means preventive care at home and regular professional periodontal treatment to remove calculus and control gingivitis and periodontal disease BEFORE it results in pain, tooth loss, and systemic disease.

People argue, “But we never did this with our pets when I was a kid.” Yeah, but how long did they live? We take care of our pets because we want to prolong our relationships with them. Their little doggie and kitty lives are already too short! Neglect – ignoring their dental problems or pretending they don’t matter – causes them pain, makes them sick, and shortens their lives.

“A human year equals seven dog years” only when you expect your dog to die at ten.

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