February 2011

Heritage Animal Hospital: Observations From The Woof Of An Animal's Mouth

Author: David Tobias | Photographer: Photography by Anne

The notion of animal dentistry is hilarious, unless you’re a dog, a cat or a fish—okay, maybe a fish is still hilarious. But the concept of dogs’ and cats’ oral hygiene being connected to canine and feline maladies elsewhere in their bodies is rapidly being accepted as quite real.

Heritage Animal Hospital on Hilton Head Island is one of the more remarkable places to explore this relatively new revelation in animal healthcare. Dr. Charra Sweeney-Reeves, who practices dentistry and oral surgery on animals exclusively as part of the practice owned by Dr. Rebecca Latham, is a tremendous wealth of knowledge and philosophy when it comes to animal dental care.

She is also building quite a following of fellow veterinarians and the hospital’s own human clients who increasingly are becoming convinced that an animal’s behavior, in many instances, is directly affected by something as simple as a toothache.

The following, from Dr. Sweeney-Reeves’ and Dr. Latham’s perspectives, are observations on the new age and complex subject of animal dental hygiene:

David Tobias: How do you know when an animal’s teeth are hurting?
Dr. Sweeney-Reeves: A dog comes in and you can’t tell when his teeth are hurting—that’s both the good and bad of doing veterinary dentistry. Sometimes we don’t know until we’ve fixed the problem how much of a problem it was. But it’s also the wonderful part of my job because I get to fix things that others didn’t know was wrong. In dogs and cats, we don’t know half of what’s wrong until we fix it.

Tobias: Are there signs?
Sweeny-Reeves: They kind of suffer in silence. Now that sounds a bit dramatic maybe, but they really do. Dogs and cats act differently because they’re different animals in the wild. Dogs are pack animals. They very much have a social hierarchy, and in a pack (even the human pack), if they act sick, ill or injured or slow down for any reason, they look weak and they lose status. Cats, on the other hand, are totally different. They’re prey animals in the wild, but they’re not big cats; they’re small, and they hide things. They’ll curl up under a bed. Both of them are going to hide things in their own way. Dogs soldier on and keep doing the things they normally do. Cats just hide.

Tobias: How do you educate your clients and your colleagues on the importance of good dental health in animals?
Dr. Latham: We’re constantly learning, and we try to be out front among our peers. That’s why Dr. Charra speaks at veterinary conferences. Sometimes, in the past, we didn’t know what to look for, and we’re learning all the time. You’ve got to be okay saying that and most of our clients appreciate the honesty. With owners, we know that they care about their pets, and sometimes the best way for them to get it is to extract a tooth that’s really got some severe stuff going on. It’s the best way to show improvement and then watch them afterwards. The difference is dramatic, and those people who experience it want to bring in every animal they own and tell their friends.

Tobias: What are implications of oral hygiene issues in animals?
Sweeny-Reeves: Most of it is infection—one of two types of infection (and infection is automatically pain because of inflammation. That’s what causes pain). The bacteria doesn’t itself directly cause pain. It’s the body’s reaction in mounting this anti-inflammatory response that causes the pain. So when we find infection, we find pain. Periodontal problems are the most common—an infection down the side of the tooth around the edge of the socket, working its way down to the bone. The second type is if we have a tooth that’s fractured—even a little bit. When the enamel comes off that tooth, bacteria from the mouth gets into the next layer down, which is much more porous and open, and then inside to the tip of the root and deep down into the bone, so you get an abscess.

Tobias: How is it treated?
Sweeny-Reeves: I kind of have two ways of looking at it: Does this dog work for a living? And if it does, it needs some teeth. If the dog doesn’t work for a living, then teeth are nice to have, but they’re options, not necessities. Most dogs don’t have to defend their territory anymore, because we have fences, and walls and locks on the doors. Now you can’t tell some terriers that, but, that’s the way it is. And they don’t hunt and kill their own food anymore. They get their kibble in a stainless steel bowl twice a day, and if they don’t, all they have to do is whine once and folks will jump up and fill the bowl. They don’t have to fight for mates anymore, because everybody’s animals are spayed or neutered. So they just don’t have to have them, with the exception of working dogs—dogs that do a lot of carrying, opening doors, things like that. And some herding dogs can pull it off without teeth if they have the right attitude. For police dogs, for example, we do a lot of endodontic work—those are probably the only dogs that will see crowns. Otherwise, we take these teeth out that are infected.

Tobias: If you do take teeth out are there any obvious result?
Reeves: When we do an extraction and it fixes the problem, I sometimes have people come back and say, “Put those rotten teeth back in his mouth; he’s acting like a two-year old again and driving me crazy.” Those are the fun ones.

Tobias: How can dental issues be prevented in animals?
Sweeny-Reeves: Brushing every day is one way. Doggy breath—or tuna breath in cats—neither of those should be real. So it’s kind of the scratch and sniff test. Sometimes we have animals that we can’t imagine how owners have lived with them—sleeping in the same bed, drooling on the pillow. An animal’s mouth should smell like what they’re eating. I recommend that people start brushing their pets’ teeth, even when they have baby teeth. They say, “Why would I want to do that? They’re baby teeth and they’re going to lose them within six months.” But it’s habit—something they get used to—and it gets easier the more you do it. A Labrador retriever might weigh 50 pounds by the time he’s six months old. If you start early, you build up tolerance and you don’t end up wrestling with that 50-pound Lab. (We try to avoid the wrestling.)

The other is chew toys, but you have to be careful. Real meat bones, like large leg bones that people like to get, chew hooves and Nylabones are the top three things that break off teeth. Occasionally rocks. My three criteria for chew toys are: You have to be able to bend it, break it, or dent it with your thumb. Those are my three. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to talk to your vet.

Tobias: What about cost? Is treatment expensive?
Latham: For cats and 20-lb dogs and smaller, it might start at $120. You can call around and you might find it cheaper, but what does that include? Teeth cleaning, maybe extractions, anesthesia. But what it doesn’t include is somebody monitoring the dog, pre-op blood work to make sure the animal is okay and a tube in their throat protecting the airway, which is mandatory, and IV catheters to keep fluids going, because if you have a crisis, you need access to a vein. We run fluids on patients every time. The difference is, when you look at our procedures overall, we are probably at the high end; but if you take the list of the things that we do and take that list somewhere else and ask how much do you charge for a catheter? How much do you charge for monitoring that patient during the procedure? Some of them will say, “What monitoring?” If they had that option, that service, the price is not any different.

Dr. Sweeney-Reeves and Dr. Latham are board certified veterinarians in full-service practice at Heritage Animal Hospital, located at 130 Arrow Road, Suite 101 on Hilton Head Island. Dr. Sweeney-Reeves’ practice is limited to dentistry and oral surgery. Call 843.842.8331 for more information or visit heritageanimalhostpitalhhi.com.

Let Us Know what You Think ...

commenting closed for this article