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Dental Prophylaxis for Cats

By: Dr. William Rosenblad

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A dental, also sometimes called a "prophy" or prophylaxis, is a cleaning and polishing of a pet's teeth. It is important to realize that dental disease does not reach a particular level and remain there. Dental disease continuously progresses. As dental disease progresses, the treatment becomes more involved, meaning longer and more elaborate (and more costly) dental procedures. This means that sooner is better than later when it comes to addressing your pet's dental disease with an appropriate treatment.

What Are the Indications for Performing a Dental Procedure?

A dental cleaning should be performed on your pet when gingivitis (red area along the gum lines) is seen or bleeding during brushing is noted. Many pets get their teeth cleaned once a year. A yearly cleaning is not necessarily appropriate for all pets. Diet, chewing behavior and preventative care (daily tooth brushing) are among the important factors affecting the potential of your pet getting dental disease and how fast dental disease can progress.

Cats are more prone to periodontal disease than large dogs, primarily due to the difference in chewing habits. Cats that eat canned food are more likely develop dental disease. Cats may also have their teeth affected by resorptive lesions (sometimes incorrectly called "feline cavities"). These lesions are progressive, destructive lesions of the teeth that often cause damage along the gum line. Any damage of either the tooth or gums along the gum line will increase the likelihood of periodontal disease.

What Preoperative Examinations or Tests Are Needed?

A proper dental procedure for your pet requires him to be placed under general anesthesia. Prior to such a procedure, your veterinarian should perform a complete physical examination. Some basic blood tests, including evaluation of liver and kidney function and red and white blood cell counts, may also be done before an anesthetic procedure. If there is any concern of kidney disease, a urinalysis should also be part of the work-up. Concerns about heart function, such as the presence of a heart murmur, may need to be addressed.

What Type of Anesthesia is Needed?

Your pet needs to be under general anesthesia for a dental procedure for several reasons. A complete examination and cleaning of all teeth cannot be performed efficiently and safely (for both your pet and the veterinarian) if your pet is awake. Dental radiographs (x-rays) may be helpful for appropriate evaluation of dental disease and are impossible to perform on an a pet that is awake. Any tooth extractions that may be necessary most definitely require an anesthetized patient. Even the most routine dental cleaning is a fairly wet procedure and our pets are not very good at the "rinse and spit" aspect of dentistry.

How Is the Dental Procedure Operation Done?

After your pet has been placed under general anesthesia, your veterinarian will examine all of the teeth and gums. If any periodontal pockets (loss of bone around the tooth, below the gum line) are found, dental radiographs may be done to assess the extent of damage. Appropriate treatment of diseased teeth is done. Using an ultrasonic instrument, your veterinarian will remove the tartar on the teeth by scraping the tartar with a vibrating probe. This allows minimal damage to the tooth enamel. After all the tartar and plaque has been removed, the teeth are polished with a special tooth polish.

How Long Does the Dental Procedure Take?

The length of a dental procedure can vary greatly. A straightforward cleaning may take 20 to 40 minutes. Any dental disease that requires more treatment than just a cleaning or any necessary tooth extractions will, of course require more time.

What Are the Risks and Complications?

The risks of a dental procedure are usually minimal. Anesthesia is never completely without risk, but advances in anesthesia protocols and monitoring can greatly reduce risks. Appropriate evaluation of your pet prior to the procedure and addressing any medical problems can also go a long way towards reducing risks of anesthesia. Other risks include excessive bleeding following tooth extractions, fracture of the tooth root or the surrounding bone, or damage to neighboring healthy teeth. The potential for these risks is remote.

What Is the Typical Postoperative Care?

Care for your pet after a dental procedure depends on the extensiveness of the procedure. Special care is usually not required after a simple cleaning. If tooth extractions or advanced periodontal treatment was performed, feeding softer food, administering antibiotics and using an oral rinse may be recommended while healing occurs.

How Long Is the Hospital Stay?

Most dental procedures are complete within one hour and your cat may only spend one day in the hospital. Any concern of recovery from the anesthesia may warrant an overnight stay in the hospital for observation.

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