Education key when talking to clients about dentistry for their pets

Historically, pets may not have gotten dental care but we now know how important oral health is to the patient’s wellbeing and longevity

Historically, pets may not have gotten dental care and the veterinarians didn’t talk about it, but we now know how important oral health is to the patient’s wellbeing and longevity. Photo ©BigStockPhoto.comVeterinarians know the importance of regular dental care for pets. Keeping a dog or cat’s mouth in good shape is vital to the overall health of the pet. But how can you convince your clients of this, especially when the annual cost of prophylaxis dental care can hit them hard in the wallet?

Veterinarians who specialize in treating canine and feline teeth have found ways to help owners understand the importance of dental care for pets—and have even found ways to help them afford it.

According to the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC) Advocacy Committee, cost is a significant reason clients resist providing preventive dental care for their pets. Professional dental cleaning requires proper preanesthetic evaluation, anesthesia, and diagnostics like dental radiographs.

Oral surgery, endodontic, and restorative treatments are additional treatments sometimes indicated in patients. The need for these treatments is found during diagnostics like charting and dental radiographs during a professional dental cleaning. And now, advanced imaging like CBCT is increasingly recommended to further ensure an accurate diagnosis. All these pieces are part of the professional dental care cost, according to the AVDC, and all are vital to the success of the treatment and the health of the patient.

Mary Berg, BS, LATG, RVT, VTS (dentistry), at Beyond the Crown Veterinary Education in Lawrence, Kan., believes clients would be willing to spend the money for preventive dental care if they understood its value.

“Many veterinary professionals think the main reason clients resist preventive dental care is cost, but in reality, it is due to a lack of understanding of the importance of good oral health for the pet,” she says. “Historically, pets may not have gotten dental care and the veterinarians didn’t talk about it, but we now know how important oral health is to the patient’s wellbeing and longevity. As veterinary professionals, we need to do a better job of communicating the importance of the oral cavity and explaining why preventive care is vital.”

Dr. Ian Sandler, CEO of Grey Wolf Animal Health in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and a member of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s (CVMA’s) National Issues Committee, also finds education is crucial when it comes to convincing clients to provide pets with preventive dental care.

“We haven’t done a great job at educating pet parents about the importance of routine dental care and prophylaxis,” he says. “They are only aware of their pet’s teeth when the mouth gets really bad. Then the conversation becomes, ‘Can we preserve the teeth?’ The discussion should happen sooner. If they are nervous about their pet losing teeth or being uncomfortable, regular prevention is needed so the pet won’t have to go through this.”

According to the AVDC, the problem also lies with a lack of adequate dentistry education for some veterinarians. They note the AVDC just celebrated its 25th anniversary one year ago, so awareness of oral disease is new to the field of veterinary medicine.

Not all veterinarians receive adequate training in oral disease and treatment, so client education is sometimes lacking. The AVDC does note oral disease in veterinary patients is increasingly being addressed and discussed more each year, and education of both veterinarians and the public is improving.

Overcoming objections

The cost of a dental cleaning can seem daunting to many pet owners, even if they understand the importance. Offering a wellness plan that includes yearly dental cleaning, as well as exams and vaccinations, can make this type of care more affordable.

“Many clinics have wellness plans, usually offering several services,” Dr. Sandler says. “Certain services can be included in the plan, and provide many advantages, including dental cleanings. The consumer pays a monthly fee for the plan, as opposed to one lump sum when it’s time for a dental.”

Helping clients understand the importance of preventive dental care is crucial, even when making the care more affordable through a wellness plan.

“Overcoming objections can be difficult, but education and sharing success stories can make a big difference,” says Berg. “I also recommend using photos of potential or similar pathology the pet may have so the owner can really see what is happening.”

Berg also suggests using terms that mean something to the client.

“Periodontal disease is a painful infection,” she says. “Most people understand ‘pain’ and ‘infection.’ Explaining that dental disease can lead to systemic problems for the pet can also help. I always compare dental issues in animals to what humans may have experienced. Plaque and calculus forms in dogs and cats just as it forms in humans. This may help the pet owner better understand why prevention is so important.”

Berg also recommends veterinary staff use firm language when talking to clients about dental care.

“Don’t say, ‘The doctor recommends a professional dental cleaning,’” she says.  “A recommendation is just a suggestion. Instead say, ‘Your pet needs a professional dental cleaning.’ Replace ‘should’ with ‘need’ and ‘could’ with ‘must.’ Changing your words can help the owner understand this is important and needs to be taken care of soon. Saying, ‘The pet needs to have a professional dental cleaning, and it must be scheduled soon to prevent the infection from getting worse and risking tooth loss and systemic health problems’  will increase the likelihood of compliance.”

Sandler points out education of pet parents about the importance of prophylaxis dental care should start when they first get their pet.

“When pups and kittens first come in, we don’t always do a good job talking about the importance of this,” he says. “We should be discussing with them what will be the pet’s routine dental plan going forward.”

When discussing a pet’s health, Sandler recommends making a direct correlation between what happens to a pet’s oral care if left uncared for and how this can affect the pet’s body.

“The mouth can be a major reservoir of bacteria that can affect not only the gums and teeth, but also the rest of the body,” he says.

Home care

Sandler also recommends educating owners about preventive dental care at home.

“Encourage pet parents to feed a dental diet that has higher carbohydrate matrix to help remove some scale and plaque building on teeth,” he says. “When pets chew these foods, which are harder than regular kibble, it performs a mechanical cleaning. They work very well to remove dental plaque.”

The AVDC also recommends encouraging owners to maintain a homecare regimen, even though it is time consuming, and can be challenging. The group points out pets are like toddlers: they require patience, routine, positive reinforcement, and daily care—including daily oral homecare. Veterinarians need to provide the education to clients on what that entails: daily tooth-brushing, appropriate chew toys, and various other oral homecare products as shown on the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) website at www.VOHC.org.

Audrey Pavia is an award-winning freelance writer who specializes in pet and veterinary topics. She lives in Southern California with a menagerie of dogs, cats, and horses.

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