New York Times Company
March 22, 1990


By Trish Hall

When the veterinarian says it's time for the dog's dental checkup,
certain questions inevitably arise: Does a dog get cavities? Does a
dog need to brush every night? Does a dog need to floss? Does a dog
need braces? The answers are no, yes, no and sometimes. Dentistry for
animals is the fastest-growing branch of veterinary medicine. In a
1988 survey, 5.2 percent of pet owners said their pets had had dental
work on their most recent visit to the vet. That is more than twice as
many as in 1982, according to a mail survey with 30,000 respondents
done by the American Veterinary Medical Association, whose
headquarters are in Schaumburg, Ill.

Veterinarians say the increase in dental work reflects a greater
understanding of animal dental needs as well as a growth in the number
of older animals that are living long enough to develop problems.

The problems are pretty human: the enemy is plaque. The wild forebears
of dogs and cats avoided plaque buildup by chewing on rough food and
bones. But domesticated, they don't give their teeth a challenge.

"We have precipitated this because of the food," said Dr. Colin E.
Harvey, a professor of surgery at the school of veterinary medicine of
the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. To compensate, he
said, people should give their pets rawhide chew strips, dry rather
than moist food, and plastic chew toys. Naturally, companies are
looking at this market for its profit potential; Nabisco recently
introduced Milk-Bone T.C. biscuits and rawhide strips that are
supposed to help control plaque.

Veterinarians say prevention is the best approach to animal tooth
care, with annual visits for a mouth check. Animals with serious
plaque problems should have their teeth cleaned. But they have to be
anesthesized, because they don't always open wide when asked.

Prevention means brushing, usually with a child's brush, a cotton swab
or a cloth wrapped around a finger. "We recommend they start when
they're puppies and kittens," said Dr. Sandra Manfra, the senior staff
surgeon at the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan.

Cats are more resistant to brushing than dogs, but tricks can be used.
"What some people do is dip a cloth in tuna or clam juice," Dr. Manfra
said. "I would use that as an introductory thing." Dogs seem happy
with the malt-flavor toothpaste sold by vets. Because animal teeth are
widely spaced, flossing isn't necessary.

Vets say that untreated gum problems can lead to disease and some
strange symptoms. "The animal may be moaning or hiding under the bed
or not eating well," Dr. Manfra said. There may also be an odor. "A
lot of people talk about dog's breath," she said, "but that's not

Dr. Phillip Raclyn, the director of the Riverside Animal Hospital on
the Upper West Side, said most of his clients were willing to spend
what it takes to keep their pets healthy.

"The people here are young, they come from out of town and their best
friend in New York is their pet," he said. It helps that they can pay
the bills with credit cards. For a dog or cat less than 5 years old,
Dr. Raclyn charges $80 for a cleaning; for an older animal, which
needs blood tests and X-rays, the cost is $200.

Most dental work on animals is done by veterinarians. But there are
exceptions. In the mornings, T. Keith Grove, a dentist in Vero Beach,
Fla., works on human mouths. In the afternoon, he drives to a
different office, where he works on animals.

"I'm basically an animal lover," said Dr. Grove, who has degrees in
dentistry, veterinary medicine and periodontal surgery. "I would like
to see them benefit from some of the knowledge of human dentistry,
because a lot of it we've gotten at their expense. They are used in
research so we can figure out what works."

Dr. Grove said he had expected some human patients to be dismayed when
they learned that he spent afternoons working on cats and dogs, but
none have. In fact, some contented patients have sent him their pets.

For both humans and animals, periodontal disease is the most common
mouth problem. Cats have some dental problems that dogs don't, like
cavities below the gum line. "When you tap on the teeth, they can be
very sore," he said. He treats cat cavities with root canals, fillings
or extractions.

He will also put braces on dogs that need them. "I do two or three
cases of orthodontia a week" on dogs, he said. Braces are recommended
when the teeth are misaligned and the fangs stick up to the roof of
the mouth, making it hard to eat. Braces can also be used to head off
a bite problem (the kind that involves difficulty in the way the teeth

Although dental work is providing another source of income for vets,
it is not as lucrative as human dentistry. "You can't charge as much,"
Dr. Grove said, "because people will say it's just a dog or a cat, and
I got him for nothing."

At home, Dr. Grove has five guinea pigs, a Jack Russell terrier and a
cat. Does he brush their teeth every night before they go to sleep?

"I'll tell it to you the way my patients tell it to me," he said.