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Tooth Care

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Its easy to ignore teeth. For one thing, theyre out of sight most of the time. For another - well, lets face it - theyre a form of defence - a weapon if you like. Now many animals would never dream of using their teeth in such a way against their intimate acquaintances, but there are certainly the odd few out there who, objecting to having their mouths inspected, will quite happily at least threaten to use their choppers for a non-digestive function on owners and vets alike.

But we shouldnt let such issues detract from caring for our pets teeth. For teeth are important - they start the whole process of digestion by beginning the break down of food. They should be cared for from the beginning. Just like humans, pups and kittens have a set of baby teeth. Their appearance in the first few weeks of life is helped if the young animals are given something to chew on, as this helps the teeth to come through cleanly, thus helping avoid gum inflammation and infection.

The next crucial phase in dental care is when the young animal loses its milk teeth and starts to produce the permanent set. Usually what happens is that the root of the temporary tooth is absorbed by the gum, with the rest of the tooth coming loose and falling out. Sometimes however, the root is not fully absorbed and the new tooth comes through before the old one is lost. This can hinder development of the new one, or even push it out of place, so it is important that persistent milk teeth are removed.

Once the adult teeth are through, the most common problem we see is the formation of tartar on the teeth, partly as a result of the preponderance of soft tinned food our pets eat. Even eating the relatively harder biscuits does not exercise the teeth and gums enough to prevent the formation of tartar, which is made up largely of bacteria. The tartar eventually hardens, sticking to the teeth and causing the gum inflammation which is the first sign of the more serious periodontal disease.

In this condition, bacterial infection of the gums, if left untreated, can result in retraction of the gum away from the tooth root, exposing it to the possibility of infection and, eventually, loss of the tooth. In serious cases, bacteria from chronically infected gums can enter the bloodstream, spreading through the body to infect other organs, particularly the heart and kidneys, causing disease and even death.

So what can you as a pet owner do to prevent tooth problems? Well, there are several lines of attack:

1. You can brush their teeth every day. "Oh horrors!" people cry. "Hed never let me brush his teeth". While this is certainly true of some animals, many owners are surprised at how little trouble they have with the brushings. Its certainly an advantage to start them young so that it simply becomes part of daily grooming, but many older animals adapt to having their teeth brushed without too much fuss. Dont use human toothpaste - animals dont care for the way it foams or for its minty flavour. On the other hand, the chicken flavoured paste you can get from your vet may well go down a treat!

2. There are now special high fibre biscuits available which will help remove soft tartar from your pets teeth.

3. You can also get dental toys for your pet to chew on. These toys, usually made of rubber, are designed in such a way as to help remove soft tartar as well.

4. Regular dental checks with your vet are important so that problems can be forestalled - teeth may need to be cleaned, filled or even removed under anaesthetic, or periodontal disease may need to be treated. Checks should be annual for younger animals; every six months for older pets.

The importance of teeth to nutritional wellbeing is even more important in horses, where poor teeth can prevent the ability to bite off the grass and chew it properly, resulting in weight loss and failure to thrive. One of the major problems is that sharp edges can develop on the back teeth, meaning that food is not adequately chewed before being swallowed, and is therefore much more difficult for the horse to digest. For this reason, horses should have their teeth examined annually, so that any sharp edges or overgrowth can be rasped back, a relatively simple procedure.

- Virginia Williams & Bert Westera