The Veterinary Dentistry Gap

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Despite the majority of pets needing some level of oral care, most practices get only a fraction of their revenue from dentistry. This gap provides a great opportunity for discussions with your customers on the potential to improve both patient health and clinic profits.

Over the past few months, I’ve had several friends mention that their pet really needs a dental checkup, but they haven’t made the appointment yet, either due to the need for anesthesia, or more likely “because it’s so darned expensive!” I’ll admit, I’ve done a double-take at some of those quotes, but considering the impact of periodontal disease on the overall health of a pet and all that’s involved in a comprehensive oral healthcare assessment and treatment (COHAT), the benefits are well worth it.

Periodontal disease is the most prevalent disease in dogs and cats – and not just senior or geriatric pets. According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, nearly 70% of cats and 80% of dogs over the age of 3 have some form of periodontal disease. Bad breath literally just scratches the surface. Besides causing pain and discomfort, periodontal disease can cause infection and bone loss and is associated with histologic changes in the heart, liver, and kidneys.

Even with the majority of pets needing some level of oral care, national averages show that most practices get only about 4% of their revenue from dentistry. This gap provides a great opportunity for discussions with your customers on the potential to improve both patient health and clinic profits. One way to illustrate that lost revenue is to ask your clinics to use their practice software to determine the number of active patients over 3 years of age in the practice. Compare that to the number of dentistry procedures they performed in the past 12 months. How many pets potentially have untreated dental disease, and how many lost dollars does that number represent?

A common conversation

Communicating the importance of oral care should become as commonplace as vaccinations and heartworm testing – in other words, at every visit, starting with the first puppy exam. Pet owners truly want what is best for their animals, but often don’t understand how critical dental care is to the overall health of their pet and that it shouldn’t be an option. A simple diagnostic test during each wellness visit helps to illustrate this point. C.E.T. Orastrips detect thiols – the byproducts of bacteria present in periodontal disease that may not be detected by a clinical examination of the gums – and gives the owner visual proof that infection is present. If you have clinics still operating under COVID-19 restrictions with owners not present for an exam, this gives them an excellent opportunity to use photos or a quick video to show the diagnostic results, along with the condition of the pet’s teeth and gums. This becomes a documentation of the pathology, as well as the first of “before and after” photos.

Pet owners are often under the impression that a “dental” is just a simple clean and polish, so it’s no surprise when they balk at the price. Clinic staff need to focus on the value of the procedure to the pet’s well-being and explain all that a COHAT involves. This may include preoperative blood work, general anesthesia, temperature maintenance, monitoring vitals, IV fluids if needed, supragingival (crown surface of the tooth) and subgingival (under the gum surface) scaling and polishing, a complete intraoral exam including probing and charting of each tooth, any necessary extractions, dental radiographs, applying a sealant, pain management (which may include laser therapy post-procedure to help relieve discomfort), anesthetic recovery, any necessary antibiotics, plus follow-up with the client.

Photo of owner using a finger toothbrush on a cat representative of veterinary dentistry.

Home care

Are your clinics recommending home dental care for their patients? The long-term success of a dental procedure depends on the degree of plaque control the client provides between visits. Dental care is at the top of the noncompliance list, so education and communication are vital to get pet owners on board. Plaque starts to re-accumulate before the animal even gets home! It can attach to clean teeth within 24 hours, and if plaque isn’t removed, can start to form tartar after just three days. Gingivitis can begin to develop after only two weeks. Sharing those facts with customers makes it obvious why follow-up appointments and daily dental care are so important.

Regular home dental care is an important way owners can positively impact the health of their pet, and it can even become a bonding experience. Daily brushing is the gold standard to control plaque and tartar, but statistics show that 98% of pet owners don’t brush their animal’s teeth. Veterinary staff may not be able to demonstrate in person how easy it can be to train a pet to enjoy (or at least tolerate) brushing, but they can video chat with the owner or post a one- or two-minute video to social media, showing that a couple of minutes of brushing a day is all it takes.

For those pet owners who simply won’t brush their pet’s teeth, practices can package their dental procedures with home care products that facilitate improved compliance. Tooth and gum wipes provide a mechanical action similar to brushing, are less messy, have good taste acceptance, and are quick and hygienic. There are plenty of “passive,” user-friendly products that yield good results and make it easy to increase compliance, including flavored oral gels and sprays, water additives, dental diets, and enzymatic chews.

Keep a list of the products you carry that can be offered as part of a complete dental health program – particularly those items that are VOHC-Certified. The Veterinary Oral Health Council is an independent organization that awards their seal only to products that have been through double-blind studies and shown a 15 to 25% reduction in plaque, tartar, or both. Their complete list is at Helping your clients source samples and educational materials and discussing home delivery options direct to their customers will set you apart as a partner in helping them increase compliance and revenue.

Untreated dental disease can be a source of pain and suffering, but while it’s the most common disease in both dogs and cats, veterinary dentistry is an untapped source of patient care and practice growth in most companion clinics. By including dental care as part of every exam, veterinarians can greatly increase the health of their patients and their clinic income – a definite win-win.

Image credit 1: Titarenko

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