The mouth is the source of many health issues for dogs and cats. One of the most common dog owner complaints is the bad breath which is also known as halitosis. Although seemingly harmless, bad breath is typically a symptom of more severe dental disease occurring in your dog's mouth.

In a congress organised by Kenya Small and Companion Veterinary Association (KESCAVA) at the Kenya Veterinary Board headquarters in Kabete to offer its members continuous professional development, dental problems were one of the features of the day.

The congress brought together stakeholders in the small animal health space such as the Kenya Veterinary board, veterinary clinicians dealing with small and companion animals, academia, research, and suppliers of pet pharmaceutical products and diagnostics from Greece, the United Kingdom, Burundi, Zanzibar and across the globe.

Speaking at the congress, one of the speakers, Prof. Serafeim Papadimitriou, a professor in dentistry and orthodontics from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki- Greece, said it is prudent for pets to have annual dental exams to ensure good health and prevent dental conditions that can be very painful.

In fact, 80 per cent of dogs and 70 per cent of cats show signs of oral and dental disease by age three. For cats, tooth infections are one of the top 10 reasons cats see vets each year.

According to Prof. Serafeim, the top five most common dental conditions for dogs are periodontitis or gum disease, oral trauma or fractured tooth, benign oral tumour, gingivitis and deciduous teeth or complications thereof.

For cats, gum disease, gingivitis, tooth resorption, oral trauma or fractured tooth and ulcerative stomatitis make the top five most common dental conditions.

In this article, we shall focus on periodontal disease.

But what is periodontal disease?

Your dog's mouth can be infected with bacteria. Most often than not, you won't see any obvious signs or symptoms of this rather silent disease until it reaches its advanced stages, but gum disease can cause gum erosion, chronic pain, tooth loss and bone loss. Also, the supporting structures of teeth can be weakened or lost.

When food particles and bacteria accumulate along the gums and are not brushed away, they can develop into plaque, which hardens into calculus known as tartar. This results in inflammation and irritation of the gums (gingivitis), and is an early stage of gum disease.

In the second stage, the attachment between teeth and gums breaks down, which intensifies in stage three and evolves into advanced periodontal disease in the fourth stage. Here you'll see gum tissue recede, and loss of 50% of the attachment between teeth and gums. At the end, tooth roots can become exposed.

What are the symptoms of periodontal disease?

Some of the key symptoms of canine periodontitis include: discoloured teeth (brown or yellow), bad breath, inflamed or bleeding gums, loose or missing teeth, excessive drooling, blood on chew toys or in a water bowl, favouring one side of the mouth when chewing, reduced appetite, problems keeping food in the mouth and "ropey" or bloody saliva

In the advanced stages of gum diseases, man's best friend may be in significant chronic pain, which our pets hide out of instinct to avoid showing signs of weakness to predators.

The effects of periodontal disease, according to our good professor, don't remain confined to your dog's mouth. They can also lead to problems with major organs and cause heart disease when bacteria from the mouth enter the bloodstream, then attach to arteries surrounding the heart.

What causes periodontal disease?

"Bacteria builds up in a dog's mouth and can eventually develop into plaque, which when combined with other minerals, hardens within two to three days. Calculus is difficult to scrape away from teeth. As the immune system begins to fight this buildup of bacteria, inflamed gums and more obvious signs of the disease become apparent", noted Prof. Serafeim.

Moreover, poor nutrition and diet can play a critical role in the development of plaque and bacteria that eventually cause periodontal disease. Poor grooming habits (if your pet licks himself frequently), the alignment of his teeth (dogs with crowded teeth are more susceptible to gum disease), unclean toys and of course, oral hygiene can create a pile-on effect.

How is periodontal disease in dogs treated?

Depending on the level of care your veterinarian can provide, your pet's needs, and other factors, Prof. Serafeim noted that, treatment measures and their cost can vary widely. Pre-anesthesia blood work is a critical step to find out if your pet is healthy enough for anesthesia medications, which can cause problems for dogs with organ disease.

Any dental procedure should include: Pre-anesthesia blood work, intravenous catheter and fluids, a complete set of dental radiographs, circulating warm air to ensure patient stays warm while under anaesthesia, endotracheal intubation, oxygen and inhaled anaesthetic. Additionally, scaling, polishing and lavage of gingival areas, local anaesthetic if any extractions are needed, anaesthesia monitoring and obviously pain medication during and after this vital procedure.

How can you keep my dog from getting periodontal disease?

Fortunately enough, periodontal disease is preventable. If detected early, it can also be treated and reversed. You can prevent the disease by being proactive when it comes to your dog's oral health. Just like us, they require regular dental appointments to maintain their oral hygiene and spot any areas that may give them trouble.

To add to this, your dog or cat pet should see the vet at least once every six months for an oral health evaluation. You can also ask any questions you may have regarding at-home care, in addition to finding out how often your pet should come in for professional teeth cleanings.

Keep problems from developing between appointments by giving your dog's teeth a daily brushing to prevent plaque and bacteria from forming by using toothpaste made specifically for dogs, plaque prevention gel, and oral rinses.

There are also dental chews, dog food, and chew toys specifically designed to address dental disease and keep tartar from getting out of control. Caution: don't try to use these approaches to replace daily brushing - they may serve as a supplement to regular oral care. When and if you notice appetite changes, swollen or inflamed gums, or missing teeth, schedule an appointment with your vet immediately.

Another speaker at the congress was Dr. Anita Patel, a Kenyan-trained vet working in the United Kingdom. She talked about the manifestations of the different skin conditions and how to treat them.

According to Dr. Patel, pet insurance has enabled pet owners to acquire better services for their pets thus giving them a comfortable life.

In his presentation to the congress, Dr. Dhaval Shah, the Chief Veterinary Pathologist from Lancet Pathologists - Kenya noted that proper sample collection is important for accurate diagnosis. This is because a correct diagnosis of infections in pets is required for proper treatment protocols to be put in place.

In conclusion, Dr. Derrick Chibeu, the KESCAVA chairman noted that professional wellness is key for a robust veterinary workforce as depression and suicide cases have been on the rise across the country and globally.

The Kenya Veterinary Board (KVB), through its acting Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Mary Agutu commended KESCAVA for organising this congress. KVB is the government body mandated to supervise and has general control over the training, registration, practice, and licensing of veterinary professionals in Kenya. The board also advises national and county governments on the employment of veterinary surgeons and animal health professionals.

Dr. Agutu said that continuous professional development is part of the training that veterinarians are required to undertake to enhance their knowledge, skills and attitudes toward veterinary practice.

[The writer is a Veterinary Surgeon and the Resident Vet at Farmkenya]