Recent advances ease dog days at dentist Owners more conscious of tooth care CENTRAL -- Union Mills * Weestminster * Sandymount * Finsburg

November 16, 1992|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

It was Spanky's first time at the dentist's, but he managed to conceal any nervousness he might have felt and any desire to relieve his anxiety by biting the dentist.

Spanky was scheduled only for a routine cleaning, but when the technician lifted his upper lip and began checking his teeth, she found a badly broken premolar. It would have to come out.

Spanky, a 10-year-old Boston terrier, handled the experience well -- even the unexpected extraction.

By the next day, he was back to his usual activities: playing Frisbee with his owner, April Stahley, a student at Westminster East Middle School, chowing down and "running around the house and barking," said Mrs. David Elser, April's mother.

Ten years ago, Spanky's dentist-veterinarian would have had to use a bone cutter to cut the dog's broken tooth into pieces to extract it.

"So now it's nice to have the high speed drill," said Dr. Nicholas R. Herrick of Bond Street Veterinary Hospital.

Spanky and his canine and feline contemporaries are the beneficiaries of recent advances in veterinary dental technology and increased consciousness among pet owners of their best friends' need for dental care.

The technology has been coming into use for about 10 years, but the real boom in veterinary dentistry began about five years ago, Dr. Herrick said.

What prompts most dog owners to ask about dental care is -- to put it bluntly -- doggy breath. Tartar and plaque contain food particles and bacteria, said Dr. Herrick's associate, Dr. Kevin C. Doherty.

The deposits build up, particularly in older dogs who spend less time chewing, which leads to bad breath.

Spanky's preparation for having his teeth cleaned included an initial injection to relax him so that he could be fitted with a breathing tube that fed a combination of oxygen and nitrous oxide -- the "laughing gas" that dentists use on human patients -- into his lungs.

A separate endotracheal tube stopped saliva and bacteria from going down his throat.

The veterinarians had given him a physical earlier to be sure he could tolerate the anesthetic, a routine check for older dogs.

When Spanky was put on the table, technician Peggy England wheeled in a dental unit that would look familiar to anyone who has been to the dentist in the last several years.

The unit is equipped with low- and high-speed drills, a tool called an elevator that is used to break up large chunks of tartar, an air pump, a water spray for rinsing and an attachment with a rubber cup used for polishing.

There's a special polishing paste made of zirconium silicate in bubble gum flavor, too.

Mrs. England said it usually takes about 30 minutes for a routine cleaning of a pet's teeth, a technique she learned as part of her veterinary technician studies at Essex Community College. A technician usually handles the cleaning. Dr. Herrick or Dr. Doherty monitors the anesthetic.

Cats also have shared in the new dental care consciousness. Cats are more cavity-prone than dogs because the enamel on their teeth has a tendency to erode near the gum line, exposing the teeth to a form of decay called neck root lesions.

"They're usually hidden under tartar, so you don't see them," Dr. Doherty said. "What you see is a cat who is reluctant to eat or eating on one side of its mouth or food is falling out because it hurts to chew."

Veterinarians can fill cats' teeth, although if too much of the root has been lost by the time the cavity is discovered, the tooth has to be pulled.

Dogs are more likely than cats to break their teeth, which makes them likelier candidates for root canals. Root canals, however, are still rare in the Bond Street hospital's general practice.

Dr. Herrick said he has done one root canal on a dog, "with the assistance of my dentist, who gave me advice."

The procedure is expensive. It can cost up to $350, compared with about $475 for a complicated human root canal.

The doctors at Bond Street have also seen one puppy whose baby teeth didn't fall out. They had to pull the puppy teeth to keep them from distorting the alignment of the dog's permanent teeth.

Owners should brush their pets' teeth, ideally every day, but "as best you can, as often as you can," Mrs. England said. But skip the Crest, or any other human toothpaste.

"They don't like it, and sometimes it makes them sick and they start throwing up. It's an unpleasant experience for the animal," Dr. Doherty said.

Dog and cat toothpaste comes in liquid or paste form. It doesn't contain mint, which can upset animals' stomachs, but it does contain enzymes that dissolve plaque.

Mrs. England said owners who don't want to buy a commercial product can use a paste made of baking soda, although pets may not care for the salty taste.

Spanky's owners decided they would make brushing his teeth part of their routine. Mrs. Elser said her husband bought some canine-compatible toothpaste, "so we're going to do it."

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