Vet Tech Corner: Periodontal disease – The mystery behind the gum line

By: Kristy Stops, Claims Resolution Specialist, RVT and Briana Butcher, Claims Specialist, Veterinary Technician

As veterinary technicians, showing pet owners before and after pictures from their pet’s dental cleaning is one of the most satisfying parts of our job. Restoring a mouth full of heavy tartar, inflamed gums, and substantial bad odors into a healthy smile is always a dramatic transformation. It isn’t every day that we get to present owners with such a strong visual representation of how much their pet is benefiting from veterinary care. 

Helping clients to be aware of their pet’s oral hygiene problems can be tricky! Pet owners are often surprised to learn that by 3 years of age, most dogs and cats have some evidence of periodontal disease. They often don’t notice symptoms like gingivitis or tartar build up, especially if concentrated on the carnassials or molars. Additionally, in early periodontal disease, the signs can be invisible—bacteria and plaque begin to form below the gingival sulcus, setting in motion a cycle of inflammation and damage to the supporting tissues around the teeth. One sign that technicians can help pet owners to be on the alert for is halitosis. We can help pet owners to understand that “doggy (or kitty!) breath” is a common symptom of dental disease. Left untreated, a minor problem like halitosis can turn into a serious illness. Severe periodontal disease is not only painful for the pet, but can result in a wide range of secondary complications including tooth root abscesses, bone infections, oronasal fistulas, pain, mobile teeth, and secondary heart, kidney and liver changes. Helping owners understand the importance of proper veterinary dental care is an important part of keeping their pets happy and healthy.

Briana remembers encountering a German short-hair pointer named Baxter who had severe periodontal disease. It was so bad that almost all of his teeth had greater than 50% root exposure. The teeth were covered with a thick layer of dark brown tartar and purulent material. His gums and buccal tissues were fire red and inflamed due to constant contact with the heavy tartar build up. Full mouth dental radiographs showed even more destruction under the gum line, revealing about 50% horizontal bone loss. The damage was advanced enough that full mouth extractions were needed. Unfortunately, his owners were not able to afford this, so the teeth were cleaned and polished and the patient was discharged. Sadly, Baxter did not return to the clinic for follow-ups.

Kristy remembers a west highland terrier whose owners worked very hard to take care of their dog’s teeth, taking him to a pet spa for an anesthetic free dental scaling every 4 months. This dog’s teeth where beautiful and sparkling clean, so his owners were surprised when their vet suggested they bring their pet in for a comprehensive oral health assessment and treatment under general anesthetic. The vet pointed out that the dog had quite severe halitosis, and discussed some concerning areas of gingivitis. The owners scheduled the procedure for the following week. While probing the dog’s teeth, Kristy found several deep periodontal pockets, multiple loose teeth, and an oronasal fistula! Full mouth radiographs were taken, and 7 teeth were extracted due to advanced periodontal disease. The anesthetic-free dental cleanings kept this dog’s teeth free of superficial tartar, but were unable to diagnose the more serious problems occurring below the gum line!

Here at Trupanion we understand the importance of regular dental exams and dental cleanings, as well as proper dental home care. Having discussions with pet owners about their pet’s teeth will encourage them to work with their veterinary team to improve oral hygiene throughout the life of their pet. Regular dental care also reduces the risk of costly dental procedures with multiple extractions.

Do you have a dental success story, or some great before and after dental photos to share? Email us at [email protected] We’ll feature some of the best before and after photos in next month’s tech corner!

About the authors:

Briana Butcher is from Everett, Washington and received her Associates Degree of Applied Science in Veterinary Technology from the Bel-Rea Institute of Veterinary Technology in Denver, Colorado. She has 16 years of experience in working in the veterinary industry ranging from general practice, veterinary dentistry and shelter medicine. Briana joined Trupanion in April 2013 as a Claims Specialist where she enjoys applying the medical knowledge learned throughout her career. Other than her passion for animals, Briana enjoys spending time with her family, traveling and nerding it up by playing video games. 

Kristy lives in Vancouver, British Columbia with her husband and two cats. She is a registered veterinary technician, and spent 8 years working in a variety of practices and facilities including small animal, avian, exotic, wildlife, and research. She joined Trupanion in 2014 and works as a Claims Resolution Specialist in the Appeals department. When not working, Kristy enjoys performing in comedy shows, writing, reading, playing video games, and camping. 

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