Client compliance in pet dental care – could understanding oral bacteria help?

Posted on May 23, 2019 by Jens Ruhnau

How many of your clients regularly check their pets’ teeth? Very few people examine their pets’ teeth unless they are carrying out daily homecare, so if they’re anything like the average owner they probably don’t peek in their pet’s mouth very often. If they did, would they know what to look for?

Many pet owners don’t recognise the early signs of periodontal disease (PD). They expect dental problems to be accompanied by heavy bleeding, broken or loose teeth and a pet who’s refusing to eat. Of course, severe or late stage PD may well present with some of those signs but by that stage it’s usually less difficult to convince an owner that intervention is necessary. However, it’s not easy for owners to spot that their pet’s dental health has moved from normal to early PD, as the signs can be quite subtle - especially to the untrained eye.

Given that most pet owners are unaware that their pet has an oral problem, an examination of the oral cavity should form part of every physical examination in your practice. It’s worth remembering that oral examination in a conscious animal will only give limited information and a definitive oral examination can only be performed under general anaesthesia (although many owners find this hard to believe, especially if they feel their pet is showing no signs of a dental problem).

An expert view

As vets, of course, we are much more likely to note if a pet has gingivitis and plaque which may have escaped their owner’s attention. Some owners may remain unconvinced when advised that their pet needs intervention, as “he’s still eating normally” or “he doesn’t cry or yelp”.

Pain originating from dental problems is very rarely recognised by owners, and even sometimes by professionals. It’s actually quite rare for an animal to become anorexic due to a dental problem, except in cases of severe soft tissue damage like chronic gingivostomatitis. In general dental pain is a chronic pain and it is only after successful treatment that the delighted owner reports how much better their pet is doing, not having realized how much dental pain or discomfort was affecting their pet. Pain is often mistaken for a pet just “slowing down” or “getting old”.

Catching the bug

Oral examination of a conscious animal is limited to visual inspection and some digital palpation only, and the aim is to obtain a tentative diagnosis and help formulate a treatment plan. Could oral bacteria hold the key to a more definitive answer? All pets (and people!) have communities of bacteria in their mouths, known as the oral microbiome. The human oral microbiome has been well studied and hundreds of species of bacteria have been identified. Research has even suggested that human salivary microbiota can reflect both oral disease and systemic conditions. In the field of animal health, similar research has been underway. Researchers from the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition worked with specialist veterinary dentist Lisa Milella to characterise the bacteria in the cat and dog oral microbiome in a healthy mouth and in oral disease, showing that they are very different to those found in humans.

New research presented at the European Veterinary Dental Forum in Utrecht discussed the bacterial “signatures” of canine periodontal disease and concluded that screening dental plaque for certain bacteria known to be associated with periodontal disease has the potential to improve disease detection in conscious dogs. In the future, could this be a way to more easily diagnose pets in need of dental treatment (or further investigation)? It may even help to convince uncertain owners of the need for dental care at home or in the practice, if a test result signals that all is not well with their pet’s oral microbiome. If a way can be found to do this quickly and easily in the practice or at home, this could be a real boost towards getting clients on board with the tricky topic of their pet’s dental health. And anything that helps with that would be welcome news for me!

BVA and Mars Petcare are working together to examine the links between pet nutrition and human behaviour and healthy body weight in pets. Mars Petcare wants to make a better world for pets, this partnership is an important step on that journey.

Jens Ruhnau

Written by Jens Ruhnau

Owner, TandDyreklinikken

Jens Ruhnau is a recognised veterinary dental specialist from Denmark. He runs the referral veterinary dental clinic TandDyreklinikken in the Copenhagen area. The clinic also has an education centre with high end facilities for post graduate continuing education. Jens travels widely as a speaker and tutor for wet-labs around the world.

Jens is also a member of Mars Petcare Science Speakers Bureau.