February is National Pet Dental Health Month. This is a good time to increase awareness about our pets' dental care.
As Fido and Fluffy age, they have many of the same oral issues as their human counterparts. They can suffer from gingivitis, periodontal disease, tartar, broken teeth, root abscesses and a whole host of other painful conditions.
What about when pets are babies? Puppies and kittens have special dental considerations, just as children do.
Unless you watch closely, you may not be aware that your puppy or kitten's mouth is undergoing a rapid transformation. The tooth fairy won't make an announcement, and little Fido and Fluffy aren't going to tell you. You probably won't even find the loose baby teeth — they are usually swallowed or lost.
The first six months of life are busy for pet mouths. Like newborn human babies, puppies and kittens have no teeth at birth. Their deciduous, or baby, teeth erupt within the first month. They begin to fall out at four months.
But within two months, the baby teeth should be gone and all the adult teeth will have erupted. Your puppy or kitten is now barely 6 months old. Hopefully, nature will have taken its intended path and the adult bite will be perfect.
All too often, though, especially with the domesticated breeding of pets, some teeth will have problems. Sometimes, it's not significant. Other times, it can lead to painful conditions.
Some pets do not lose all their baby teeth. These are called retained deciduous teeth. The adult tooth emerges next to the corresponding baby tooth and causes crowding. The extra teeth increase the risk of oral trauma and periodontal disease.
Retained deciduous teeth are typically an inherited disorder and are most common in small-breed dogs. If you have a little dog, look at his teeth, especially the fangs. They should occur singly. If your dog has two adjacent, or double, fangs, he likely has retained deciduous teeth.
These baby teeth should be radiographed and carefully extracted. The best time to do this is before the six-month birthday in order to give the adult teeth a chance to shift into the correct position. Care must be taken to avoid damaging the adjacent tender adult tooth.
Some animals have an overbite or underbite. This occurs when the lower jaw is either too short (overbite) or too long (underbite). In either case, the teeth do not have normal occlusion. This will increase the rate at which periodontal disease occurs.
In some cases, the abnormal jaw causes teeth to bite the gums or other soft tissues. This is very painful. Imagine biting your lips or gums in the same place every time you close your mouth. The teeth that cause constant pain need to be extracted.
Overbites and underbites have a strong inherited component. In fact, some breeds are prone to this trait. Short-nosed animals, such as bulldogs or Persian cats, typically have the characteristic underbite. This may look cute in pets, but it's not what Mother Nature intended. These animals need special attention to ensure their mouths are pain-free.
Another common pediatric dental condition for cats and dogs is when the lower fang erupts too far inward. This is called a base narrow tooth. It leans inward instead of sliding into position next to the upper fang. The lower fang traumatizes the upper gums or hard palate with every bite.
Base narrow teeth can be excruciatingly painful. Some pets will try to shield the tender area with their tongue. They may look like they are sticking their tongue out, but it is actually a protective behavior. Fortunately, base narrow teeth may be corrected if they are identified at the right time.
Every pediatric pet should have an oral exam by a veterinarian at five months. This is when the fang teeth are beginning to erupt. If a base narrow tooth is identified, it may be corrected simply with an inexpensive toy. After six months of age, it is too late to intervene with toys. Oral surgery will be required to avoid a lifetime of pain.
Dogs and cats should have their teeth counted soon after they turn six months old.
A cat should have 30 teeth, and a dog should have 42. Missing teeth need x-rays. Unerupted, but formed, teeth can lead to dentigerous cysts. These high-pressure cysts are destructive and can cause jaw fractures. Fortunately, when unerupted teeth are identified in puppies or kittens, they can be easily extracted before cysts form.
Puppies and kittens have teeth, too. A little extra attention to their mouths will give them something to smile about later.
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Dr. Heidi Bassler practices at Bassler Veterinary Hospital (www.BasslerVet.com). She hosts a radio show, "Your Pet's Health," every Sunday morning at 8:30 on AM-1450 WNBP. Do you have questions for Dr. Bassler? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.