One of the rapidly growing specialties in veterinary medicine is dentistry. The increasing awareness of dental health behooves me to discuss my holistic perspective. Conventional medicine believes that tartar and calculus on the teeth are the result of not keeping the surfaces clean, thereby allowing bacteria to accumulate and produce plaque. The plaque combines with saliva and hardens into calculus (tartar). The solution appears to be regular brushing and cleanings. Root canals are performed to "save" teeth whose root chambers have been damaged.
As you probably suspect, my approach is different. I agree that diet plays a role in calculus formation. I believe pet foods are very calculogenic (calculus forming) because of their high carbohydrate content. Starchy ingredients such a corn, wheat, rice, etc. become sticky (like glue) when moistened by saliva and chewed. Starches are readily used by bacteria for food. In addition, kibble forces pets to chew more than a natural diet. Chewing increases contact between teeth surfaces and the sticky food making a bad situation worse. This explains why the studies show that dry foods do NOT keep teeth cleaner. Mechanically cleaning the teeth is not the answer. If starchy foods are harmful to a pet's teeth, it is logical to expect them to be harmful to other parts of the body, too. The sensible approach would be to change the diet to one that is "friendlier" to the carnivore mouth. This is accomplished by mimicking the wild type diet as much as possible. What is especially "dental friendly" about the wild diet? Several factors come to mind.
First, the lack of complex carbohydrates (starches) means the diet is less sticky and less conducive to bacterial growth.
Second, the wild type diet requires less chewing. By nature, carnivores chew very little (you have heard the phrase "wolfing down" food). They do, however, tear food apart which requires strong teeth and jaw structures. Thus, a wild type diet helps to strengthen these tissues.
Third, a wild type diet contains tough fibrous tissues such as tendons which act as natural dental floss to clean the spaces between the teeth.
Fourth, a wild type diet contains bones. Bones are nature's way of cleaning dental surfaces.
BONES?! (I hear readers screaming as they read this.) "Bones are dangerous." "Pets can choke on bones." "They can puncture the digestive tract." "A tooth can break from chewing on bones." These are the things I often hear about the use of bones. As in many myths, there is a kernel of truth, but it is small. Bones that have been cooked are harder and more brittle than those that are raw. Most if not all of the problems reported involve cooked bones. Studies have shown that bones are digestible. Stomach acid dissolves out the calcium leaving the soft collagen framework. It is possible for a pet to choke on a bone or break a tooth. Many people have choked on steak, yet I don't see the world becoming vegetarian. In making a decision whether to use bones, weigh the risks versus the benefits. Bones provide good exercise for the teeth and jaws, keep the teeth clean, are a good source of nutrients and are enjoyed by most dogs and cats. The risks include the small chance of any of the situations already mentioned. What are the benefits of not feeding bones? I know of none other than reducing the already small risk of breaking a tooth, etc. What are the risks of not using bones? The greatest risk is not as obvious as the increased dental problems already discussed. The greatest risk is what happens to pets who need dental care - ANESTHESIA! Many animals die during "routine" procedures under anesthesia. The real question in this debate is which is safer 1) chewing on a bone or 2) general anesthesia? Is there any doubt? Carnivores have been eating bones for thousands of years. Clearly, they are better designed to handle bones than anesthesia. I have been using this approach for years and have seen pets with severe calculus problems improve dramatically. The choice is yours.
In addition to dietary factors, teeth and gum problems may be a result of systemic disease. While the oral symptoms may or may not be the only physical problem, a thorough history including behavior patterns and emotional responses will elicit other signs of imbalance.
As mentioned earlier, root canals are the standard treatment for damaged roots. This procedure involves removing the tooth's life giving structures, i.e. the blood and nerve supply. The remaining space is "sterilized" by a disinfectant solution and then the canal is packed with "inert" materials and sealed. There are several problems. It is impossible to sterilize the root canal. As a result, bacteria are trapped in this area. Additionally, the body's ability to bring an immune response is reduced by the removal of the blood supply. In effect, a root canal sets up a long term low grade infection in the root area. Teeth are located on "meridians" (channels through which life energy flows.) A root canal can block energy flow resulting in problems in seemingly unrelated organs. I have seen this occur. Many people have reported an improvement in a variety of physical problems after having root canals extracted. As for other options, there are reports in people of successful treatment with homeopathy. Extraction of a tooth would be less damaging to the general system.
Another common problem is feline neck caries. These are painful cavities that form at the gum line. Interestingly, these are only reported in domestic cats and are a recent phenomenon. This suggests that there is something in our health care program that is producing these lesions. (Poor diets and vaccinations are at the top of my list.) Putting in a non-mercury filling doesn't seem to be a problem and will help relieve discomfort. However, the underlying cause is not addressed in this way and it is likely that more caries or other symptoms will appear.
Even in the area of dental care, conventional medicine follows its usual path of treating symptoms and neglecting the underlying cause. Again, homeopathy, diet changes, etc. are important keys to restoring health.
Russell Swift, DVM, HMC