In cats, a very common problem is feline tooth resorption lesions, which are caused by normal cells called odontoclasts eating away at the cat's own teeth. Approximately half of cats over 6 years of age have at least one. They are similar to cavities in that once they are advanced, they are VERY painful and can become infected. They are first seen as small red areas along the gumline.
Other oral problems include bacterial cavities, painful orthodontic problems, dead teeth (which are commonly discolored), and worn teeth. Almost every pet has some form of painful or infectious oral disease that needs treatment. Unfortunately, there are few to no obvious clinical signs. (See below, What are the warning signs of periodontal disease?) Therefore, be proactive and ask your veterinarian for a complete oral exam, and perform regular monitoring at home.
A true dental prophylaxis consists of several steps, some more critical than others. The required steps that must be performed include:
- Supragingival scaling: This is the removal of the plaque and calculus above the gumline (what you can see).
- Subgingival scaling: This is the thorough cleaning of the area under the gumline to remove disease-causing bacteria. It is typically performed by hand and is time consuming, but it is the most important step of a dental prophylaxis.
- Polishing: Scaling slightly roughens the teeth. This promotes plaque and calculus attachment and reduces the lasting effect of the cleaning, so the teeth are polished afterward. There has been some controversy about this in human dentistry, due to the loss of enamel with many cleanings over time. However, in veterinary dentistry, with relatively fewer cleanings in an animal's life, this is not a concern.
- Sulcal Lavage: Cleaning and polishing results in debris being caught under the gumline, which must be thoroughly rinsed out.
- Oral exam, periodontal probing and dental charting: This is a critical and often misunderstood part of the dental prophylaxis. There are teeth that cannot be thoroughly examined in a pet who is awake, when periodontal probing is not possible. With the patient under anesthesia, the mouth is thoroughly and systematically examined, and all findings are noted on a dental chart. Any diseased teeth or tissues are then properly treated.