Tartar is loaded with bacteria, calculus even more so. Inflammation of the gums allows leaky capillaries to send the bacteria into the bloodstream. It’s not just about saving your pet's teeth. The bacteria can seed all over with major effects seen in an animal's kidneys and on its heart valves. The periodontal disease itself is bad enough without the systemic risks. Pets with oral disease issues may not want to eat, putting their body in a negative energy balance, which can affect all body systems.
Inflammation in the mouth will affect the supporting structures of your pet's teeth causing deep gingival pockets, which will be a nice warm home for microbes, some of which aren’t supposed to be there with the normal flora. (Overgrowth of normal flora is also an issue.) I dare say most of us don’t eat dirt, feces and decomposing animals and few of us have the inclination or flexibility to self groom our nether regions. Our mouths may be "dirtier" because we are more likely to have resistant bacteria, but you can’t beat an animal for variety of flora. Eventually the gingival pockets affect even more supporting tissue, then the blood supply and stability of your pet's tooth will be affected.
Dentists want us to get our teeth professionally cleaned twice a year assuming we already brush our teeth, don’t eat carrion or have any calculus. Is it so hard to have even half that standard for a dog or cat? No. It can be hard to accept this, because our pets have the added cost and risk of anesthesia. Dentals are not just once and done, with the effect lasting for, if not the lifetime of the pet, then at least for a few years. Scaling and polishing your pet's teeth is roughly the same as in human dentistry. The comparison breaks down beyond that, because for the vast majority of cases, the tooth gets extracted instead of getting a root canal, minor fractures ignored instead of crowned, and maloccluded teeth pulled instead of straightened with orthodontics. Dental radiographs for pets require sedation instead of a little patience while clenching teeth in a chair. There are veterinary specialists that we can recommend for these more advanced procedures.
Please be aware that extractions are extra, as well as pain relief for the extractions in some cases. Estimating the cost of extractions is difficult, as veterinarians, in most cases, need to assess the viability of your pet's teeth while under anesthesia. Gingival pockets, as well as tooth instability, can’t usually be discovered until the calculus is removed. Sometimes the calculus is all that seems to be holding the tooth in place. Sometimes it's hair the animal groomed off itself that covers the exposed roots. (Trichodentosis in Dr. Schwabe’s lexicon.)
You will find that many procedures end up being the same or cheaper when added to a senior dental. This does not mean we should combine a dental that is not needed to the procedure we want done just to save money. Remember that anesthesia time is not to be wasted frivolously. We don’t want our patients under any longer than necessary. This also does not mean that every procedure can be combined with a prophy. Even with antibiotics on board ahead of time for a particularly filthy mouth, we have to weigh the risk of an oral infection contaminating other areas such as the joints and bones with the risk of having to re-anesthetize the patient later. For the most part, assuming the other procedures won’t take an excessive amount of time, skin masses and spays and neuters are okay, open orthopedic procures are not.
Brian G'Sullivan, DVM, is a veterinarian at Pleasant Valley Animal Hospital in Quakertown, PA. He has training in veterinary CO2 laser surgery.