Periodontal disease (also known as periodontitis or gum disease) is probably the most common disease occurring in domestic carnivores. An estimated 85% of dogs and cats over the age of 3 are affected and require treatment.
Periodontal disease is progressive and has two phases. The first is gingivitis, which is purely inflammatory (inflammation of the gums, or gingiva). Unfortunately, if left untreated, it can lead to a second phase involving irreversible tissue destruction.
The initially smooth, dry surface of the teeth quickly attracts a film of glycoproteins, polypeptides and salivary lipids. This acellular layer, known as the acquired pellicle, promotes the adhesion of oral bacteria, resulting in bacterial plaque. This happens very rapidly: just 24 hours after a tooth emerges, its entire surface is covered. Over time, other bacteria adhere to the underlying layer and the plaque thickens, matures and extends over the crown as well as under the gums. Within 48 to 72 hours of the start of the process, the bacterial plaque reacts with salivary minerals and food particles, hardening into tartar. Like plaque, tartar comes in two forms: supragingival (above the gumline) and subgingival (below the gumline).
Tartar has a rough surface that promotes further accumulation of bacterial plaque, which in turn mineralises, producing more tartar.
Contrary to popular misconception, tartar itself does not cause periodontal disease; it is actually caused by the bacteria in bacterial plaque.
Bacteria present below the gums initially cause inflammation. They then release toxins and invade underlying tissues. These processes destroy the alveolodental ligament and alveolar bone, which surround and support the teeth in the jaw.
Eventually, the destruction is such that the teeth can no longer be maintained in the jaw. This is why periodontal disease is the main cause of tooth loss in our companion animals.
Gingivitis is reversible. However, if left unchecked, it can progress to severe periodontitis, in which the supporting bones and tissues are destroyed. At this stage, the disease is irreversible, as it is impossible to restore the destroyed bone and ligament, despite the best possible treatment.
To avoid irreversible damage, make sure you take your pet to the vet for regular dental check-ups and don’t forget to brush!
Dr Pascale Dufour
vet in charge of dental consultations and procedures at Liège University Veterinary
Clinic and private practitioner in Eghezée, Belgium