Common Dental Diseases in Small Animals

Common Dental Diseases in Small Animals

Examining the mouth can tell us a lot about the general health of our pets. As vets we routinely look in and around the mouth every time we examine an animal. The lips, gums, teeth, tongue, and the hard palate can all be quietly brewing some serious problems which may well be related to dental disease. All of these are places that are easily checked in amenable pets, and owners can and should look at them regularly (except in rodents). The most important thing for any of us as pet owners is to be able to safely and gently look in our pet’s mouths whenever we’re handling them. So don’t leave it until you’re concerned about a problem; get into the habit of routinely checking for anything which looks abnormal.

The sooner we know about a dental or oral problem, the better. Most of the conditions which affect the mouth are painful and will therefore need swift investigation and treatment. Smelly breath is not just a sign of old age, and should not be considered normal. The bad breath is just a symptom of a disease process which will progress if it is not dealt with. It is often due to dental disease, but may be due to a tumour in the mouth, a piece of foreign material stuck in the mouth, or ulceration due to a more generalised disease.

Gingivitis (inflamed gums, possibly bleeding), calculus, tooth root abscesses and ultimately tooth loss are all painful conditions, but often do not cause an animal to stop eating. In many instances these are chronic conditions which progress gradually, and so often they are not perceived to be significant factors in our pet’s general health. However, they are genuinely debilitating conditions which we certainly wouldn’t ignore in our own mouths, and we ought to learn to appreciate their significance in our pets.

Some factors, such as breed, jaw conformation, tooth trauma and viral/bacterial infection can predispose our pets to rapid or severe dental disease. Poor and/or inappropriate diet is a major cause of dental disease in pet rabbits and guinea pigs, who actually only require simple low energy, high fibre food i.e. grass/hay (not concentrated, manufactured pellets). They need to spend long periods of time chewing; otherwise their teeth become too long and irregular in shape. Sharp spurs on the molar teeth dig into the cheeks and tongue, and the abnormally long teeth prevent normal chewing action.

The best advice I can give you is to check your pet’s mouth regularly (i.e. at least weekly, if not daily); look at all the teeth, open the mouth wide and look under the tongue and along the hard palate. Look for swellings, bleeding, plaque, foreign bodies etc. If you see anything abnormal, or which concerns you, get it checked by your vet. Prompt action is always best.

Please be aware that insurance policies will rarely cover the cost of dental treatment, unless it is for an acute condition which could not have been prevented by good care and attention. It is our responsibility to make the effort to maintain good dental hygiene wherever possible, and therefore minimise the need for veterinary dental treatment. Appropriate food, chews, toothpaste and mouth washes should all be considered part of a good dental care regimen. The vast majority of veterinary dental treatment requires general anaesthesia and so pets usually stay at the vets for the day to receive the care and attention they deserve.