Dental care and hygiene has become one of the main focusses for veterinary and nutritional professionals over the past 20 years. For pet parents, periodontal disease is one of the most obvious early indications of health problems.
In fact, 70% of cats and 80% of dogs now show some signs of periodontal disease, leading to the American Veterinary Dental Society claiming it to be the most common cause of dental problems. Dental care is also a major subject for vet and vet nurse training, with many vets now specialising in dental treatments and referrals.
Many pet foods and treats now include physical and nutritional aspects specifically designed to improve and maintain oral health. In particular, most functional treat ranges include a dental variety which is designed to be offered daily to maintain healthy teeth and gums.
Although it is generally recognised that physical teeth cleaning with a brush is the best method of protection, the physical abrasion provided by crunchy kibbles also has a significant effect. Large and angular kibbles penetrate deep between the teeth, providing a brushing action that also stimulates the gums.
Over the last 10 years there has also been a growth in the number of dental chews available. Many include ingredients and additives to reduce dental decay, but most promote a chewing action that stimulates saliva production, which helps to combat substances that induce periodontal disease.
PLAQUE AND CALCULUS
In particular, there are two substances that adhere to teeth and can go on to cause periodontal complications. Plaque is a sticky residue made up of bacteria and food deposits which becomes yellowy brown as it matures. The bacteria excrete acids which attack the protective enamel coating the teeth, thereby causing dental caries (cavities) and increasing gum inflammation.
Small lesions in the gums can also allow the bacteria to enter the blood stream and go on to challenge the immune system, leading to secondary health issues. Some bacterial strains also produce volatile substances, like hydrogen sulphide, which creates unpleasant breath odour (halitosis). The second substance found on teeth is calculus (tartar). After one or two days the plaque begins to attract calcium salts which create a hard, brittle structure at the base of the teeth. Calculus is very difficult to remove by physical means, and generally involves veterinary intervention, therefore the prevention of its formation is preferable. Together, plaque and calculus induce the development of gingivitis.
AGE AND OBESITY
As the body ages the teeth and gums also begin to deteriorate, and become more susceptible to bacterial and chemical attack. The gums also shrink and recede, exposing more of the sensitive dentine to the oral cavity.
This can make chewing and grinding more painful for older dogs and cats, which in turn reduces the amount of abrasive action, and further exacerbates plaque development.
It is therefore even more important to regularly inspect the teeth and gums of our older companions, and ensure that regular veterinary check-ups are carried out.
Along with the physical, abrasive action of crunchy kibbles and the saliva-stimulating effect of chewing, a number of ingredients and additives can have beneficial effects on oral health.
Alkalising substances can be used to adjust the pH in the mouth to also reduce the mineralisation of plaque. A number of fruit and vegetable extracts, like blueberry and marigold, have powerful antimicrobial and antioxidant activities, which can help to reduce bacterial proliferation as well as protect the gums against attack by free radicles and hydroperoxides.
Vitamins, such as vitamins C and E, can also help to reduce oxidative damage, with a number of clinical trials showing reduced gingivitis scores in cats and dogs when fed diets containing high levels of these antioxidant vitamins.
Vitamin C is also important in the production of collagen, which is required to hold teeth firmly in place and provide structure to the gums.