February is National Pet Dental Health Month. For three decades, veterinarians around the country have been using this month as an extra opportunity to educate pet owners about the importance of dental health.

According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats show signs of oral disease by age 3. Is your pet one of them?

To find out, lift up your pet’s lip and look at her teeth and gums. If the teeth are perfectly white, the gums are an even light pink, and the breath is fresh, your pet probably has good oral health. If not, you should ask your veterinarian if it’s time for a cleaning. Dental tartar is a yellow or brown mineralized material that accumulates on teeth. The mineral matrix traps harmful bacteria.

Over time, these bacteria begin to cause inflammation along the gums and the ligaments that connect them to the teeth. This inflammation is known as periodontitis. It most often appears as dark pink or red patches between teeth, a red line along the gums, or bleeding gums.

Many, many pets experience this common disease. While most owners do not think of periodontitis as a serious problem, veterinarians know the ugly truth.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Oral Health says that “studies have demonstrated an association between periodontal diseases and diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and adverse pregnancy outcome.”

In veterinary patients, we also see links between periodontal disease and damage to the kidneys and liver. In dogs and cats with gum inflammation, showers of bacteria frequently jet through the bloodstream. The average patient will have a positive blood culture every 10 days. These bacterial showers have been definitively linked to reduced lifespan. Regular dental care may add anywhere from two to five years to the life of your family pet!

In clinical practice, I see pets without regular dental care getting “old” at much younger ages than in other pets. Owners just convince themselves that their 12-year-old cat’s kidney failure is just a product of age or nature. In reality, many of these pets could have lived longer, happier lives with regular dental care.

To quote the U.S. surgeon general’s report again, “oral health is related to well-being and quality of life … Oral and craniofacial diseases and conditions contribute to compromised ability to bite, chew, and swallow foods; limitations in food selection; and poor nutrition … Oral-facial pain, as a symptom of untreated dental and oral problems and as a condition in and of itself, is a major source of diminished quality of life.”

Yes, toothaches really hurt. Even for your pet. Of course, animals are programmed by nature to hide pain until it becomes extreme. We know that their nervous systems experience the same pain signals as our own. We also know that tooth pain is one of the most intense and significant types of pain that can be experienced. Be kind to your pet and take care of her teeth.

Part of your pet’s six-month wellness visit should include a thorough oral examination. At the first sign of gum inflammation or other oral disease, you should schedule a dental cleaning.

Using light anesthesia, your veterinarian or licensed veterinary technician will remove the tartar accumulation, evaluate the depth of gum pockets, examine the tooth surfaces for damage or decay, polish the enamel, and apply fluoride to strengthen the teeth. If any gum treatments or extractions are required to maintain your pet’s health and comfort, your veterinarian can perform them during the procedure.

In addition to routine dental procedures that occur within your family veterinarian’s practice, some dogs and cats visit board-certified veterinary dentists for root canals or repair of fractured teeth.

Michael J. Watts, D.V.M., is a companion animal general practitioner and owner of Clevengers Corner Veterinary Care in Amissville. He can be reached at 540/428-1000 or through www.ClevengersCorner.com.