Posted By: Harry

Unlocking Health, One Tooth at a Time: The Vital Role of Tartar Removal

At Shepton and Wells Vets, we prioritize your pet's dental health for their overall well-being. In this insightful article, our vet Polly Cornwell delves into the significance of tartar removal, explaining the intricate process and emphasizing the critical role dental care plays in your beloved companion's health journey.

Vet Polly Cornwell removed them during a routine appointment, but this is not a treatment for the problem, more just to demonstrate how big tartar deposits can get, and to make eating easier for this lovely cat in the short term. 

Tartar is the mineralised deposit that builds up on dogs’ and cats’ teeth if they are not cleaned daily (and humans’ teeth, too!) 

Saliva and food make a slime called plaque that coats the surface of the teeth. Mixing saliva with chewed up food allows enzymes in the saliva to start the digestive process. You can sometimes feel plaque as a furry layer in your own mouth, but it is not easy to see.  Plaque in dogs and cats can be removed by chewing for over 20 minutes, or by owners brushing the teeth.  There are also some enzymatic preparations on the market which can help break down the plaque, but a combination of chewing and brushing has been proved time and time again to get the best results. For any method to be effective it must be done every day (studies have shown that brushing less than 4 days a week will have no effect on tartar build up). 

If the plaque is not removed, after 24 hours it starts to become mineralised and hard. This is tartar, which you can see as a creamy to brown colour on the white enamel surface of the teeth. Tartar cannot be removed by brushing or chewing and must be physically removed. 

Although we snapped off the lumps of tartar in the photo, more remains on the surface of this cat’s teeth that can only be removed by descaling. To do this thoroughly requires a general anaesthetic, as the back teeth, the most difficult to reach, are usually the worst affected. 

We can use a tool called a hand scaler to scrape the tartar off the teeth, but this takes a long time and can leave deep scratches on the teeth.  Instead, we use ultrasonic descalers, which vibrate very quickly to more gently and accurately scrape away the tartar. Ultrasonic descalers are great if used correctly, but they can cause problems if not. The tip of the descaler vibrates so quickly it gets very hot. We must be careful to descale each tooth for no more than 3 seconds at a time, otherwise the tooth can suffer irreversible heat damage. Scalers have a fine water spray that helps to keep the tip cool, and we must ensure the dog or cat does not inhale this water, or it could cause pneumonia. Under an anaesthetic, our patients breathe through a sealed tube which is packed around to prevent any water getting into the airways, avoiding this risk. We also must be careful only to use the side of the descaler on the teeth, as using the tip can scratch the surface of the enamel, like hand scaling. 

After scaling, we polish the teeth. While this gives a lovely finish, the main reason is to smooth out any little scratches on the enamel surface, which is where tartar would start to form quickest. Smooth surfaces tend to stay cleaner, longer. 

Why bother with all this? Surely, it is just cosmetic? Well, actually, no. 

Tartar contains lots of bacteria. I wouldn’t want to describe the smell that emanated from the chunks of tartar pictured, but, well, you can imagine. Lots of bacteria held up against the gums will cause infection and inflammation, which is painful for the animal, and can put it off eating, and particularly chewing. Of course, this makes the build-up even worse. Dogs and cats with lots of tartar are more prone to bacterial throat and chest infections than those with good dental hygiene. There is also a strong correlation between poor dental hygiene and severe heart disease, particularly in dogs. This is because excessive amounts of bacteria in the mouth lead to abnormally high numbers of bacteria in the blood stream, or bacteraemia. These can cause obstructions to form in the blood in the heart, especially if there is an underlying heart condition like valve disease. Bacteraemia alone will make anyone feel under the weather. 

Then there’s the periodontal ligaments, the tissue that secures the teeth into their sockets the jawbone. As bacteria thrive and multiply in the tartar layer, they spread down under the gumline and eat away at these ligaments, a painful process that eventually leads to loosening of the tooth and tooth loss. Once this ligament is damaged, we can’t repair it. The only treatment is to remove the tooth to stop the process and relieve the pain. 

Dog and cat owners who work in vet surgeries see this problem on literally a daily basis, so we tend to be a bit obsessed with keeping their teeth clean.  But if I didn’t work as a vet, we probably wouldn’t think to look, and we only notice bad breath or problems eating when the tartar has been around for a very long time. 

But thinking about dental care from the start of your relationship with your pet can have massive benefits in the long term in preventing the health issues tartar will inevitably cause. Start playing with your puppy or kitten’s mouth from an early age, use a finger brush to start with and make it a game for you both to enjoy. Our vet nurses are always happy to advise you on how to brush. Also try to provide your pet with something to chew each day, not just soft food. There are plenty of cat dental treats on the market now or use a kibble that is large and fibrous and will scrape the plaque off the cat’s teeth as he or she chews. Most dogs thoroughly enjoy chewing. It’s not just healthy, it’s fun and relaxing, and gives them quiet independent time. Just make sure it’s something appropriate and safe. And if it’s edible, cut down the rest of their food to balance out the calories. 

If you think you pet might have tartar on their teeth, come and see one of our nurses or vets for a dental check, and we can advise you the best way to look after your pet’s teeth. 

At Shepton and Wells Vets, we prioritize your pet's dental health for their overall well-being. In this insightful article, our vet Polly Cornwell delves into the significance of tartar removal, explaining the intricate process and emphasizing the critical role dental care plays in your beloved companion's health journey.

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