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What Happens During Your Dog's Dental Visit?

When you take your dog in for their annual dental exam and cleaning, one of the first things your vet will probably do is look inside the mouth.

The vet will check for odor (one sign of gum disease), and for red, swollen, or bleeding gums. The vet will also look for discolored, broken, or missing teeth, as well as gum recession.

"These are all things we look for when the dog is awake," says Sharon Hoffman, DVM, DAVDC, a veterinary dentist in Jacksonville, Fla., "but periodontal disease hides below the gum line, where you can't see it."

That's why, to be effective, a full exam and cleaning must be done under general anesthesia. It's then that the veterinarian can check your dog's mouth for periodontal pockets around the teeth, check all surfaces of the 42 teeth, and perform X-rays, which are vital to diagnosing periodontal disease below the gum line.

An oral exam will also include an evaluation for malocclusions (when a tooth is touching another tooth, or touching soft tissue or the palate). It also involves checking the tonsils, tongue, under the tongue, lip margins and cheek tissue. Your vet will also feel for problems with your dog's jaw, TMJ joint, and for enlargements or swollen lymph nodes.

Finally, a chart will be created, findings recorded, and decisions made: A cleaning and polish only? Or are there some areas that need further attention?

After the Oral Exam: Cleaning & Other Care

If all your pooch needs is a cleaning, your vet will remove calculus above and below the gum line, smooth rough tooth surfaces, remove dead gum tissue, irrigate under the gum line, apply fluoride, and polish the teeth.

However, most pets do have problem areas that need further care. This is the point at which your veterinarian will talk about the dental issues your dog may be facing and discuss a treatment plan.

Generally most dogs will need oral exams, cleanings, and dental X-rays about once a year, starting at about 6 months of age. Greyhounds, medium, and small dogs often have more urgent needs, Beckman tells WebMD, and may need more frequent care. "It depends a lot on the patient."

How often your pooch needs regular cleanings and exams also depends on:

  • The dog's age.
  • The dog's breed. (Larger breeds often have fewer dental problems than smaller breeds.)
  • The home care you provide. (Do you brush your dog's teeth? Offer them good-quality chew toys and treats?)

Doing Your Part: 4 Tips for Doggie Dental Care at Home

The more you do to help your dog’s oral health, the less your veterinarian has to do. The less you do, the more the vet needs to address. Home care that can help your pet's pearly white teeth includes:

  1. Brushing your pet’s teeth daily is one of the best things you can do for your dog's smile. Armed with beef-, poultry- or seafood-flavored toothpaste, a pet-appropriate toothbrush, and patience, 8 out of 10 pets (cats and senior pets included) will ultimately allow you to brush their teeth. 
  2. Feed your dog good-quality pet food, which may include a "dental diet" if your vet recommends it. A dental diet consists of dried food and treats that help scrub your dog's teeth as they chew, or foods that include additives that help keep plaque soft. 
  3. Let your pet enjoy daily chew time with pet-safe toys such as thin bits of rawhide, rubbery balls or Kongs, bendable bones, and chewable toys you can hide treats in. Beware, not everything your pet chews will keep their teeth clean, Hoffman tells WebMD, "and not everything is good for them to chew." Avoid hard treats, say the experts, like cow or pig hooves, nylon bones, unbendable rawhide, and sheep or cow bones (raw or cooked) -- all of which can fracture or break your pet's teeth. Also steer clear of fuzzy tennis balls – the fuzz abrasively wears down a dog's teeth as the dog chews.
  4. Oral rinses may also help decrease plaque. Again, talk to your veterinarian to see if this is right for your dog and to get recommendations.

You can narrow your search for home care dental products by checking for the seal of the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC), Beckman says. VOHC is the pet version of the American Dental Association (ADA) seal of approval on oral health products for people. You can also check the VOHC web site for recommendations.

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