By Joanna Mitzel

February is National Pet Dental Health Month

In observance, I wanted to chronicle my experience in caring for and rehabilitating a small, senior dog, whose dental health care had been overlooked by his owner. Week after week, I read the ODH postings of (often small) senior dogs available for adoption or permanent foster care. One element they typically share is that many are in need of a skilled, veterinary dentist from years of limited or no brushing, and skipped dentals and x-rays.

While it may be best, brushing a dog’s teeth every day is not always an easy feat. And, when a veterinarian recommends a dental, it’s often met with concern over the safety of anesthesia, especially in a senior pet. Then, there’s also the cost. Between the x-rays, anesthesia time, fluids, and cleaning, there’s also the unknown amount of dental work to be done, until the veterinarian begins.

Whatever the justification, the time to get comfortable with the uncomfortable is now. Dog dental disease is not necessarily isolated to the mouth. Aside from pain and tooth loss, the bacteria that builds up can enter the bloodstream and cause lung, heart, liver and kidney problems. Additionally, periodontal disease can lead to bone loss and fractures of the upper and lower jaw bones. This is where Jack’s story begins.

As peculiar as it may sound, I noticed a change in Jack’s saliva. At first, there were no other obvious clues; he wasn’t lethargic or clingy and there was no change in behavior as to how he typically gobbled up his food. After a couple days of observation and attempts to look inside his mouth, I just couldn’t get passed the seemingly sticky saliva with a somewhat different odor than his typical doggie breath. I often try to align my schedule with that of my favorite veterinarian, but when that didn’t work out, I deemed it necessary to make an after-hours visit to my local 24 hour pet hospital.

The doctor working that evening was able to mildly sedate Jack in order to get a look at what might be lurking inside his mouth. He notified me that Jack was in need of a dental and currently had a serious tooth infection. Concerned, but not alarmed, I was sent home with some interim antibiotics and pain medication. The next day, I called my veterinarian and, they were able to schedule Jack for a dental the very next day.

X-rays confirmed that Jack had a fractured jaw from an abscessed tooth and needed all of his remaining teeth extracted. My veterinarian was able to successfully extract his remaining teeth, but was uncomfortable removing the tooth associated with the fracture, as its removal could have made things worse. Jack would need a skilled veterinary dentist. I was reassured that this is a common problem, and while on a case-by-case basis, there would be something they could do to get him healed.

Veterinary dentistry is in high demand. The first dentist I was referred to was booked out four months. A second dentist I spoke to was booked out two months. With really only one other recommended dentist in the state, my fingers were crossed while making the call. With much relief, I was able to schedule a consult the following week and the dentist was located within a few hours’ drive from my home.

With an empty tummy (in preparation for a possible same day procedure), Jack and I made the trek to the new doctor along with a baggie full of his prescriptions, a CD of x-rays and all the paperwork received from the previous doctors. The dentist had previously reviewed the case and gave a guarded prognosis due to the pathologic (caused by disease not trauma) fracture. After more x-rays, the plan was to remove the remaining tooth to heal the infection, and with a combination of wires and acrylic splinting, ultimately stabilize the fracture for new bone growth. Feeling confident, I left Jack in the dentist’s skillful hands.

Later that day, Jack was ready to come home and begin healing. I was escorted into the operating area to review his x-rays and discuss his post-operative care. As it turned out, there were two fractures—one on either side of his jaw. His remaining tooth was removed along with some more complex root tips from his previous extractions. His jaw bones were held together with wire loops supported with acrylic splints both inside and outside his mouth. I was directed to keep a soft muzzle on him when not eating his liquefied diet, and he was back on his pain meds and antibiotics along with a daily green tea mouth rinse. He needed weekly check-ins with our veterinarian and would return in six to eight weeks to, ideally, have his wires removed.

I headed home to be met immediately with my first recovery challenge – muzzling a small, flat faced dog. Quickly, I realized that there was no soft muzzle/tape muzzle/inflatable cone of shame that wouldn’t cause more harm than good from Jack’s inconsolable thrashing. Calculating his nutritional needs, meticulously prepared “soup” made from pulverized dry and canned dog food was a success in maintaining his weight – along with peanut butter and canned pumpkin snacks. As the weeks passed, I syringed more green tea into Jack’s mouth than on his face and my at-home haircuts became less unfortunate looking. We overcame small challenges including secondary mouth and skin infections, along with an ear infection for good measure.

Eight weeks later, again with an empty tummy and a baggie full of meds and veterinary receipts, we returned to the dentist in anticipation of good news. After discussing the weeks prior, there was no apparent reason to not remove Jack’s splints and wires. Before I knew it, Jack’s final procedure was complete. He had ample bone growth with no signs of infection, and after a few more weeks on soft foods, he would continue on like any other small, senior dog.

While Jack’s story has a happy ending, his entire experience could have been prevented with lifelong collaboration between his owner and veterinarian. It is estimated that by the age of two 80% of all dogs have some form of dental disease. Brushing, chews, annual dentals and x-rays (or as directed by your veterinarian) are your dog’s strongest defenses. While the best time to start a dental regime with your dog is when they’re puppies, the second best time to start is now.

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