White teeth aren’t necessarily healthy - Gilroy Dispatch: Columnists

White teeth aren’t necessarily healthy

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Posted: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 3:58 pm

Q: We've taken Eli, our poodle, to the same groomer for the past seven years. He loves going there and looks fabulous when they are done. They also clean his teeth and he has a beautiful smile when they finish. But our vet tells us that the groomer's dental work is not good enough and his teeth should be cleaned at the clinic. This means anesthesia and an expensive vet bill. The vet insists the groomer can't do the job, even though Eli looks so good afterwards. My husband thinks the vet is trying to drum up more business. She's a good veterinarian, and I usually trust her judgement. What's the story here?


Bottom line ... your vet is right this time. An adequate dental cleaning cannot be done without anesthesia. Here's why.

Tartar, that brown-colored deposit you see on Eli's teeth, is made up of minerals that trap lots of bacteria. That bacteria causes inflammation (gingivitis), both along the gumline where you can see it as well as deep underneath the gums. If some of this deep-seated tartar is left too long, the bacteria will damage the tooth roots, causing some teeth to lose their strength. In addition, bacterial deposits can be unhealthy for a dog with an underlying health issue (heart murmur, kidney disease, etc).

Simple scraping with a dental instrument can't get all that tartar underneath the gums. Eli's teeth may be pearly white after his treatment, but tartar you can't see is still there and still a threat to his dental health. The only way to get rid of this stuff is with an ultrasonic instrument that causes some discomfort if he isn't adequately sedated or anesthetized.

Your own dental hygienist cleans your teeth with a scraper (called an elevator). Deep cleaning under the gums isn't necessary for those of us who brush regularly. But dentists will tell you the same story; if a patient has moderate to heavy brown tartar, the only way to clean the teeth is with their ultrasonic instrument. If you could brush Eli's teeth, you could avoid all this trouble as well.

Recently, I saw a dog whose teeth were pearly white. She'd had her teeth cleaned by a local groomer for years. But four of her incisors and two molars were loose, causing a lot of pain when she ate. These teeth needed extraction. And guess what we found when we removed them? Their roots were covered in that brown stuff: tartar.

There's a legal issue involved here as well. The Veterinary Medical Board states that teeth cleaning is a procedure that can only be done by a licensed veterinarian or by someone under the direct supervision of vet. Groomers can be cited and fined for cleaning teeth according to the law. This law is designed to protect the dental health of cats and dogs. Well-meaning groomers just can't and shouldn't do the teeth cleaning your pet deserves.


I heard that you can tell the age of a dog by looking at his teeth. Is this true? We have a rescued puppy and would like to figure when he was born. Can you tell with other animals?


As a rule, it's impossible to determine the age of a dog based on his or her dentition. Changes to the teeth over the course of a pooch's lifetime are inconsistent. From breed to breed, there are too many variations in dental structure. But there's one exception to this. There is one particular time when it's actually possible to determine the age of a young dog.

At 4 months old, almost all puppies start to lose their baby teeth. First, their middle incisors - those sharp little teeth in the front of the mouth - fall out as the permanent teeth push their way into position. The premolars and molars follow soon afterward.

So look in your pup's mouth and see if those middle incisors have recently fallen out. If so you can subtract four months and you'll know approximately when your little guy was born.

Horses are a lot different. Horses can be "aged" by a simple examination of their mouth. There are many parameters involved in the evaluation, but veterinarians can usually estimate the age of equines by evaluating different markings and other changes to the teeth.

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