Dental Health is So Very Important

by: Meghan Eggertson

Managing dental disease is one of the most common and important ways in which we can relieve pain and suffering in pets. By the age of 3, 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have some degree of dental disease. The rate at which dental disease develops depends a lot on the individual animal’s confirmation and genetics; some animals can go several years without ever needing their teeth cleaned, while others need annual dentals to prevent the progression of periodontal disease.

moderate-gingivitisTeeth are held in place by the bones, ligaments, and gums surrounding them. Periodontal disease is the progressive loss or destruction of these tissues around the teeth, and can lead to infection and loss of teeth. The earliest sign of periodontal disease is gingivitis. This is inflammation of the gums caused by the body’s inflammatory response to plaque. Plaque is the biofilm of bacteria and their by-products, salivary components, and oral debris that accumulate on the teeth. It is what is removed during brushing. If not brushed off, plaque mineralizes to form tartar/calculus within about 24 – 48 hours, and this promotes the accumulation of even more plaque. Brushing does not get rid of tartar; it can only be removed by scaling. Gingivitis can be reversed with a proper dental cleaning. Just remember, if the gums are red, they are infected and painful!

DDD_dog_gum_diseaseAs the tartar continues to build up, it begins to push down between the teeth and the surrounding tissues. This weakens the bones and ligaments and causes the teeth to become loose and the roots to be exposed. At this point the affected teeth need to be extracted to prevent chronic pain and infection.  This is why it is recommended to do a dental cleaning under general anesthetic when gingivitis first becomes evident.

A dental cleaning under general anesthetic is a relatively safe and routine procedure that can be done at almost any age. We start with removing all the tartar off the teeth with an ultrasonic scaler that can clean both the crown of the tooth and below the gums. Once the teeth are clean, we are able to do a thorough exam using a dental probe to check for any pockets, root exposure, or lesions. Then radiographs (x-rays) are taken to see what the roots and surrounding periodontal structures look like. They can show us fractures, resorptive lesions, root infections, and bone loss that are under the gums and may not be evident during the exam. The teeth are all charted and the veterinarian decides if any need to be removed. Removing a tooth can be an extensive process because dog and cat teeth have much longer roots than human teeth. We start with cutting the tooth into its individual roots, then elevating each root separately to detach it fully from the ligaments and bone. The gums are sutured over the resulting opening(s). All teeth are polished and rinsed with an antiseptic solution to smooth the surface of the teeth and make it more difficult for plaque to build up again. Watch our video of a dental cleaning.

Cleaning teeth with a hand scaler on an awake patient is not recommended. The plaque and tartar under the gum line, which is what really causes the progression of periodontal disease, and on the inside surfaces is not removed. Therefor the teeth look clean, but dental disease continues to progress and the pet can still be in pain and lose teeth due to it. Scaling without polishing also creates an etched surface on the tooth so plaque accumulates more quickly and again promotes the progression of periodontal disease.

Home care is the most essential component in both preventing and treating periodontal disease. Brushing is the single most effective means of removing plaque and should be done on a daily basis. Introduce brushing to your pet gradually as early as possible since young animals are more tolerant; that being said, even older pets can learn to accept having their teeth brushed if you work on it slowly and make it enjoyable. Watch our video on how to brush your pet’s teeth.

Dental diets and chews encourage chewing and have either a texture that reduces the accumulation of dental deposits (Hills t/d, Veggident chews) or an enzyme coating that helps break down plaque (Royal Canin Dental, CET chews). We recommend a product with a VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council) seal of approval. These diets and chews should be used in conjunction with brushing. Chlorhexidine gluconate oral rinse is the oral antiseptic of choice for animals. Oral rinses augment mechanical oral hygiene (ie brushing) but will not prevent gingivitis on their own. Even with proper and extensive home care, most animals will still need to have their teeth cleaned professionally (just like people!) but it will slow down the progression of dental disease and increase the time between dental cleanings.

Dental Group

Maintaining good oral health in your pet has many benefits including better smelling breath, decreased pain, and a longer lifespan. Small dogs and cats live 15-20% longer and large dogs live 10-15% longer if they receive dental care as needed throughout their life. This is because infection in the mouth may cause disease of organs throughout the body including the heart and kidneys. If you have any more questions regarding dental disease or to book an appointment for a dental exam, please contact us.

Leave a comment


  1. Susan

     /  October 15, 2016

    My 18.5 year old indoor British shorthair cat has become unable to eat his dry indoor cat food that he ate fine for years. I have never brushed his teeth so he may not have all of them. Lately, he doesn’t eat much, even good quality wet cat food. He has recently lost a lot of weight so I am really worried about him. I know he is very old and can’t live forever, but I wonder if there is anything I can do to help him gain some weight back. He can jump just fine still. He used to do well with Advantage to control fleas but that quit working a while back. I tried Frontline and that didn’t work either. So I just bathe him monthly as he likes baths fine. I removed ten to fifteen fleas during his bath and he had lots of flea eggs when I bathed him last night. That is when I realized how thin he has become. Is there anything that I can do to help him gain weight back? He only eats a tablespoon or two at a time now. I try to feed him multiple times a day but I can’t do that days I work. Please give me any ideas to help Snowy. Thank you.

    • You need to take Snowy to your vet. There will be healthy issues and potentially pain causing his problems. He needs to see a vet and as soon as possible – that is the best advice we can give you.

      • Susan

         /  October 16, 2016

        Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. I am afraid to take Snowy to a vet here as the last time I have contacted our local vets, both of our horses have been euthanized. One was 35 years if age so old like Snowy too. I am not able to handle the stress of hearing that right now. If I knew of a more compassionate female local vet here, maybe I would consider taking Snowy to visit her. But I do not know one. The good news is that Snowy is actually doing much better tonight after I came home late from work. He looked forward to trying the new wet food I bought for him to try today, Fancy Feast liver something, after finishing up the can of bits of the Sheeba salmon I gave him last night. He actually looks so much better after eating something decent for a day and he used his litter box like he has always done. I pray Snowy will continue to feel better. If I suspect he is in pain, I will definitely take him to the male vets here. But until he lets me see any sign that he is in pain and he continues to improve, I will just give him lots of TLC and his choice of whatever he wants to eat. Please do let me know of any compassionate female feline vets in my local area of San Diego, CA. Then maybe I would change my strong opinion of not going to a vet at this point in time.

        Again, I thank you for you thoughtful and prompt reply. I really do appreciate your time and concern.


  2. I can understand your desire to not have to deal with the unfortunately part of pet ownership – the very senior years and the end of their life with you. However, cats are VERY good at masking pain and based on what you have described, Snowy is definitely in pain. Although I am very glad he ate something for you, waiting to see a vet will not improve his circumstances. Getting in sooner, possibly will give him more time than waiting until you are seeing signs of pain or distress. We are an AAHA- Accredited clinic in Canada, so unfortunately I do not know of any vets in your area. However, you can search for other AAHA-Accredited clinics around you via this link:
    Good luck with Snowy and your quest for a vet you feel comfortable with and confident in.

  1. Pet Dental Month is February | Albert North Vet Clinic

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