Pet dental conditions cost Americans millions of dollars each year, a health insurance firm has found out.
VPI, the nation's oldest and largest provider of pet health insurance, received claims totaling $3.8 million for tooth abscesses, root canals and advanced periodontitis (severe gum disease) in 2007, up from $2.3 million just two years earlier.
Despite this, the percentage of policyholders who have their pet's teeth professionally cleaned has remained a low 6.8 percent.
"The conditions that we have seen increase are most often associated with pet owners inadvertently neglecting their pets' teeth," said Dr. Carol McConnell, vice president and chief veterinary medical officer for VPI.
"Pet owners can easily tell when a pet is limping or has an abnormal growth, but most do not closely monitor the condition of their pet's mouths. Unfortunately, pets are often only brought to the veterinarian for dental problems once an infection has spread to a more visible area or when the pet's pain is noticeably affecting his or her ability to function."
Pets' mouths are biologically similar to humans. While cavities generally do not affect pets to the same degree as humans, pets' teeth and gums are still susceptible to plaque build-up and bacterial infections.
A significant bacterial infection growing under the gums can damage the structural tissues (gum and bone) that hold teeth in place. This is called periodontal disease, and the pet should receive the appropriate treatment from a veterinarian. If a tooth has been cracked or chipped, bacteria may migrate deeper into the surrounding tissues and cause inflammation or an abscess. In some cases, abscessed teeth require extraction.
In 2007, Veterinary Pet Insurance received nearly 13,000 claims, more than any previous year, for periodontal disease, abscessed teeth, and root canal therapy. VPI saw the greatest increase over the last three years in claims for surgical treatment of periodontal disease.
In 2007, VPI received 7,629 claims for surgical treatment of periodontal disease, with an average submitted fee of $361. In comparison, VPI received 4,913 claims in 2005 for surgical treatment of periodontal disease with an average submitted fee of $298. Abscessed teeth and root canals also increased in frequency and proved costly in 2007 with average submitted fees of $244 and $766, respectively.
The American Veterinary Dental Society reports that 70 percent of cats and 80 percent of dogs show signs of oral and dental disease by the time they are 3 years old.
Oral and dental disease can be a source of pain for pets and can be associated with other more serious diseases. To prevent these serious health problems, pet owners should have their pets' oral and dental health evaluated by a veterinarian regularly.
At home, pet owners can monitor their pet for common signs of tooth decay, such as bad breath and tooth discoloration, and implement a dental hygiene regimen. Regular brushing and chew toys can help keep tartar off the visible surface of pets' teeth.
The most effective preventive treatment for dental disease is a professional teeth cleaning. Only with a professional cleaning is a veterinarian able to fully assess an animal's dental health, take X-rays as needed, scale bacteria and tartar off of tooth surfaces as well as from under the gum line, polish and perform more advanced procedures if necessary.
This can result in improved overall health and longevity of a pet by preventing or aiding in early detection of dental conditions. VPI's new Pet WellCare Protection Premier Coverage rider, designed to help pet owners pay for routine care procedures, reimburses $100 for dental cleaning.
Benefits available with VPI's Premier Coverage rider renew annually, allowing pet owners to receive reimbursement for the procedure once a year.
"A pet can be vaccinated in a matter of minutes and flea preventive treatment is relatively easy to administer, but thorough teeth cleaning involves hospitalizing the pet for the day and anesthesia," said McConnell.
"This drives the cost of teeth cleaning past that of typical preventive procedures and keeps many pet owners from considering professional cleaning. By increasing the reimbursement available for teeth cleaning on its new WellCare plan, VPI hopes to lessen this financial hesitation and encourage pet owners to be more proactive about their pet's dental health."