As pets live longer, more and more are also suffering from dental problems. Veterinarians that advertise their dental services and toothbrushes designed for pets have become more popular, and experts are calling for pet owners to brush their animals' teeth to prevent such diseases.
"I didn't know periodontal disease was so serious," said a Tokyo woman whose miniature dachshund underwent dental surgery.
The dog developed swelling beneath its eyes and began to vomit repeatedly. When the woman took it to a nearby veterinarian, she was told that periodontal disease had melted the dog's upper jaw, resulting in the accumulation of pus at the bottom of its eyes.
She was referred to Centerville Pet Hospital in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, which is known for dental care. They took out the loose teeth and removed tartar, but the condition recurred and more surgery was necessary.
"Serious cases of periodontal disease may trigger heart problems and kidney disease. Appropriate treatment at an early stage is critical," said Isao Habata, director of Centerville Pet Hospital.
According to a 2014 report by the Japan Pet Food Association, the average mid-sized or large dog lives for approximately 13 years, and miniature dogs around 15 years. For cats living indoors, the average lifespan is around 16 years.
"Lifespans are becoming longer," according to the report. The spread of vaccines, better living environments and improved nutritional balance are believed to be the primary reasons.
The risk of periodontal disease increases with age: Data from one US study shows that around 85 per cent of small animals aged 6 years and above have periodontal disease. Dogs are especially vulnerable, since they have periodontal disease bacteria in their mouths as puppies.
According to Anicom Insurance Inc., the industry leader in pet insurance, an average of 5.2 per cent of dogs and 3.3 per cent of cats received dental treatment, according to data for the one-year period starting from April 2012 for pets up to age 12. The percentage rises with age, with 10 per cent of 12-year-old dogs getting treatment.
Pet shops have begun selling toothbrushes for pets and pet food that promises "less tartar accumulation." Some veterinarians are making efforts to instruct owners how to brush their pets' teeth properly to prevent disease.
Fujita Animal Hospital in Ageo, Saitama Prefecture, has started a toothbrushing instruction class for pet owners. First, owners provide treats by hand to let the pets get used to having their owners' hands around their mouths. Then they rub a piece of cloth that tastes like either treats or toothpaste on the animals' teeth.
If a pet lets its owner brush its teeth, the owner should praise the pat. If it has periodontal disease or stomatitis, brushing its teeth will hurt, so owners should wait until after treatment.
"Even if they have had a severe case of periodontal disease, if you keep on brushing their teeth afterwards, they can have long healthy lives," explains Director Keiichi Fujita.
Experts are also being trained in pet dental care. The Department of Veterinary Medicine at Nihon University's College of Bioresource Sciences in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, began a dentistry laboratory this April. Yamazaki Gakuen University in Tokyo, which trains paraveterinary workers, launched courses on animal dentistry last year.
"Pets are living longer, and dental problems will only increase. It's important to train experts in the field, and simultaneously educate pet owners about the importance of dental hygiene in their pets," said a specially appointed Prof. Shigeo Oba of Nihon University.