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Keep pets' choppers in tip-top shape to protect their health

By Val Willingham, CNN Medical Producer
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Pets need good dental care
  • American Veterinary Medical Association says few owners brush pets' teeth
  • Association: 80 percent of dogs, 70 percent of cats have some form of periodontal disease
  • Periodontal disease can be painful, lead to infection and even heart problems
  • February is Pet Dental Health Month

Watch for "Health Minute" on HLN, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ET weekdays.

(CNN) -- When 8-month-old Astana started getting her adult teeth, her owner, Gayle Warren, didn't expect any problems. She has a number of Black Russian terriers and developing new incisors was never a big deal with her other dogs. But Astana had a condition known as "twinning," where two teeth form in the same area. It can cause discomfort, overcrowding and early tooth decay. Warren decided to take Astana to a specialist in animal dentistry to have the extra teeth removed.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, Warren is unusual. The association estimates about 80 percent of people brush their teeth every day, but far fewer pet owners do the same for their furry friends. In fact, very few even think about their pet's teeth.

"Most people have no idea that dental health is so important to their pets," says Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, a spokesperson for the association. "That's why we designated February as Pet Dental Health Month."

According to the association, periodontal disease is the most commonly diagnosed problem in dogs and cats. The organization estimates that by the age of 2, 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats have some form of periodontal disease. It has been linked to diabetes, strokes, kidney disease and other life-threatening disorders. It can lead to painful infections within the mouth; in severe cases these infections can spread and become life-threatening conditions.

"We've even seen problems with heart disease in pets," says Lutschaunig, "because the inflammation from periodontal disease can cause cardiac problems."

Dr. Barron Hall runs the Animal Dental Clinic in Vienna, Virginia. He performs root canals, extractions, crowns, even puts braces on his four-legged patients. Most never complain above a whimper. But he says a lot of his two-legged clients are shocked when they're told their pets have serious dental problems.

Because the teeth are hidden behind their lips and they're eating well and they're wagging their tails, everybody thinks everything is fine.
--Dr. Barron Hall, veterinarian

"Because the teeth are hidden behind their lips and they're eating well and they're wagging their tails, everybody thinks everything is fine," says Hall.

"I've seen animals that have come in that haven't had a [dental] procedure done in 10, 13 years," says Hall. "And they come in here and their mouths are a mess and the animal leaves with no teeth."

But Hall also says a lot of vets themselves don't know much about animal dentistry. "Truthfully, I think it goes back to veterinarians and veterinary school and that we're not taught dentistry, and so that's a big problem," he says. "Its not a major core in any curriculum. We get cardiology, we get ophthalmology, we get surgery, we get dermatology, we get internal medicine, but dentistry is sort of an elective."

So what's the best way to keep your pet's teeth healthy? Hall says to try to brush them daily -- if your pet will let you. If your pet won't let you, the association recommends you have your pet's teeth examined and cleaned professionally once a year.

Also, vets say watch your animal's diet. Soft food collects on the teeth and forms tartar at the gum line, so adding some dry food to an animal's diet could help. "Often small dogs eat soft food, while larger dogs are more prone to eat dry," says Lutschaunig. Hall agrees; he says he sees more dental problems in cats and smaller breeds of dog, especially those under 20 pounds.

If the animal can't or won't eat dry, look for chew toys or treats designed to clean the teeth. "There is an organization called the Veterinary Oral Health Council and they've got a Web site," says Hall. "On the site there are products that have been approved by the organization, which says these products actually do what they say they will do, as far as plaque or tartar control."

But Hall warns about relying on these chews. "The bottom line is, there's no magic bullet you can give to an animal that they will chew on and their teeth will be perfect. You have to give them dental care," he says.

When taking your pet for a general exam, make sure the vet looks in the pet's mouth. Every week or so, check your pet's mouth on your own: Gums should be pink, not bright or dark red, and there should be no lesions or bumps. If you notice anything abnormal, follow up quickly.

A few months ago, Donna Peterson noticed an abscess on her golden retriever's lower lip. Lightning had mouth cancer and had part of her lower jaw removed by Hall. Catching it early saved the dog's life. "You can hardly notice she's missing part of her jaw," says Peterson. "Her tongue hangs out a little, but she's doing great, she's eating well and she's back to normal."

"She's only 7," says Peterson, "So she's got a lot of healthy years ahead of her."

Other signs of dental problems in pets? "The biggest thing is bad breath ... the other thing is fractured teeth," says Hall. "If they have those, then it's time to bring the pet in."

The association says the best thing to do is to talk to your vet about your pet's dental health. If he or she can't perform certain procedures, ask for a referral to a specialist who can. Although specialized pet dentistry can be expensive, preventive care can keep the cost down over the long run -- and it may just help your pet live a longer and healthier life.

"They're worth it; they're family," says Peterson. "Who would want a family member to suffer?"