Pets: Dogs can suffer tooth pain

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IT CAN be hard to resist letting your pooch polish off the scraps from your plate, or giving him the odd biscuit as a treat.

But poor dental health is one of the biggest undiagnosed problems in dogs and cats, according to local vets. They say around a quarter of pets have serious teeth problems, which can sometimes lead to life-threatening illness.

Owners have admitted feeding pets "treats" such as peanut butter, sweet tea, sugary cereal and even chocolate – which is poisonous to dogs. The difficulty is, dogs tend to hide the pain they are in, meaning tooth decay and abscesses can often go unnoticed. It is usually only picked up when the pet is taken to the vet for an unrelated problem.

Glen Watson, a partner at the Links Veterinary Group based in Haddington, says: "It is simply a colossal problem. By the time owners bring pets in, things have often gone beyond repair. It can have reached the point of full extraction.

"It's a combination of an unsuitable diet and not taking proper care of pets' teeth. Dogs are terrifically adept at masking signs of pain. They're pack animals by nature, and showing pain is a sign of weakness."

Most owners are shocked to discover their pet has been suffering toothache or a painful abscess in silence. A dog's teeth are very similar to those of a human, with sensitive inner tissue and nerve endings enclosed by enamel.

The natural diet of a wild dog includes plenty of roughage, bones and animal hide, and little sugar, helping keep teeth clean. But since pet dogs are usually fed easily digestible processed food, often with added sugar, this can take a toll on their teeth.

And many owners struggle to find the time for regular teeth brushing. According to Glen, a dog's teeth should be brushed for around five minutes, once a day. But if this is not realistic, the next best thing is to give them a low-sugar diet that is good for teeth. He recommends Hills T/D dog food, a prescription diet developed for healthy mouths.

Owners should also look out for the main signs of dental disease, which include halitosis (bad breath), discoloured teeth, red or bleeding gums and swelling of the jaw. Dogs or cats could also lose weight or lose interest in food.

He says: "You should look out for subtle changes in behaviour – the dog might seem depressed, less boisterous and start chewing less and eating slowly.

Owners are often shocked by how much better their pet is when they've had dental work. They'll be much more happy and sociable, and bounce about wagging their tail!"

But he warns that if left untreated, dental problems can develop into life-threatening conditions. A build-up of bacteria in an abscess can enter the bloodstream and lead to a heart murmur or kidney problems.

PDSA senior veterinary surgeon Sean Wensley agrees that it's important to start looking after teeth as early as possible to prevent unnecessary suffering.

He says: "It's a myth that it's normal for pets to lose their teeth as they get older. In reality, with a good diet and regular toothbrushing, there is no reason why their teeth won't stay healthy into old age."

Pet owners can download a free copy of PDSA's pet dental care leaflet, or watch videos showing the correct way to brush a pet's teeth, by visiting www.pdsa.org.uk/pethealth.