An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
During a recent visit with my veterinarian, Dr. Dave Eaton at Scott County Animal Hospital near my home, our conversation centered around some interesting points relating to health care of our sporting dogs. Following is a summary of that conversation.
Bob West: Dave, I've noticed one of the first things you do when examining any dog, healthy or sick, is to open its mouth. What exactly are you looking for?
Dr. Eaton: The oral cavity can provide valuable information not only about disease within the mouth area, but it also reflects disease processes occurring in other organ systems.
BW: What are some examples?
DE: Well, obviously dental disease is something we look for, but problems such as kidney or liver failure may also be detected early by changes that are occuring in the mouth. Abnormalities may be as subtle as slight color change of the gums, foul breath or sores. I think it's important for gun dog owners to study their own animal, as knowing what's normal is critical for early identification of possible problems.
BW: Good point, Dave, and it reinforces an earlier article in Gun Dog on emergency care. There too we recommended being familiar with our dog's gum color in addition to the importance of knowing heart rate, respiratory rate and body temperature at different levels of activity, again in hopes that by being better informed, we're able to recognize problems or make the right decision should an emergency occur.
DE: You bet. The sooner problems are recognized and brought to the attention of your veterinarian, the greater the chance of successful treatment.
BW: OK, so what's normal gum color?
DE: In most breeds, the gums will be bubblegum or coral pink with glistening white teeth. Some darker-colored breeds, however, may have pigmentation along the lips and gums. Brittany owners may recognize an almost orange color to the gums of some like-colored dogs. If you have a young dog, take note so you're able to know what's normal for him.
BW: We're hearing a lot about dental disease in dogs lately. How serious a problem is it for our hunting dogs?
DE: I've seen recent estimates showing at least 80 percent of all dogs over six years of age are affected by periodontal disease. Periodontal disease is an extension of gingivitis, an inflammation or receding of the gums that allows infection to loosen the supporting structures of the teeth.
Like people, tartar and plaque are the usual culprits that start the process. While dry food does scrape away some plaque--helping to lower the incidence slightly--and chew bones or treats also can help, there's no substitute for brushing your dog's teeth.
BW: Whoa! You're serious about this, aren't you?
DE: You bet I am, and I recommend starting early with young dogs. If brushing is introduced as part of early socialization and training, it's accepted with little hassle. With older dogs it's more of a problem, yet most well-trained gun dogs soon accept the brushing without too much fuss.
If you have an older dog, start with a trip to your veterinarian, ask him to clean the dog's teeth and show you the best way to brush, and discuss different options of products to use. The frequency will depend on your commitment, but daily brushing is our recommendation.
BW: There's no way out of this, is there?
DE: No, Bob, not if you want what's best for your dog's health. It's important to realize dental care is more than cosmetics or fresh-smelling breath.
Our goal is to ensure your dog does not miss a day afield because of a root abscess or possibly develop heart disease brought on by infection from gum disease entering the bloodstream, which can result in valvular endocarditis, inflammation of the membrane of the heart.
BW: Dave, to further your point, I've heard of tests with narcotic and bomb dogs that indicated these infections might impact a dog's scenting ability, too. Combine this with the fact that the military mandates dental cleaning as part of each dog's regular checkup, and I'm thinking that if we want our dogs to have the edge in scenting and bird finding, "the writing is on the wall." It's time to start brushing!
I'm convinced, and hopefully our readers, who want the best for their dogs, as well as that edge in competition or hunting, will follow your advice.
Now let's get back to our discussion of gum color. Most of us know to watch gum color as an early sign of heat stress during warm early-season hunting, as the tongue and gums become darker as the body tries to cool through greater blood flow in those areas.
DE: That's true, yet other examples of problems are the lighter or almost white-colored gums of anemic puppies who might be suffering from severe flea or hookworm infestation. In adult dogs, you may see jaundice or a yellowing of the gums as a result of liver disease.
Once again, I would emphasize the importance of distinguishing normal from abnormal and be less concerned in knowing which system is responsible, but if you notice anything abnormal, bring it to your veterinarian's attention.
BW: I've even head of tumors inside a dog's mouth.
DE: Absolutely, and some of the tumors we find are particularly nasty. Although the risk for most tumors increases with age, most veterinarians will advise a biopsy of any mass in the mouth regardless of age.
If you are unable to see the growth, the signs are similar to other diseases of the mouth. Most frequently, those signs would be a loss of appetite, bad breath, pawing at the mouth, excessive or bloody salivation, or difficulty in swallowing.
BW: Dave, cancer is a diagnosis none of us want to hear, yet the advantage of early treatment is obvious and again reinforces your message of the importance in knowing what's normal for your dog, so if something unusual shows up, it will be recognized and brought to the attention of a veterinarian.
We've covered a good deal of great information, and we appreciate you sharing it with us. While I'll admit the idea of brushing a dog's teeth was a stretch for me, I've taken your advice and began brushing almost every night after feeding, and I have to admit it's not that bad a deal--after a couple sessions using the flavored toothpaste you recommended, my dogs are at their kennel door waiting their turn.
Bottom line, folks, I recommend you seriously consider the benefits and set up an appointment for your dog's dental checkup, including advice on products and a guide to proper care.