Healthy Mouth, Healthy Pet: Why Dental Care Matters

BY Jenny Alonge, DVM, FFCP

Cat with toothbrush

As a conscientious and loving pet parent, you pamper your furry pal and ensure they have all they need for a long, happy, and healthy life. But, do you prioritize your pet’s dental care? You should! Oral issues can significantly impact your pet’s quality of life and lead to severe pain, difficulty eating, and systemic illness.

Periodontal disease in pets

Periodontal disease, which is also commonly called dental disease, is the most common dental issue in pets, with the majority suffering some degree of disease before 3 years of age. Periodontal disease is caused by bacterial deposits (i.e., plaque) on the tooth surface, which, if not removed, can advance under the gumline and damage the supporting structures of the teeth. The condition has several stages:

  • Stage 1 — The first stage is gingivitis, which begins when the bacteria in plaque accumulate on the tooth surface and release toxins that irritate the gums, causing redness and inflammation. Pets with gingivitis typically have bad breath and sometimes swollen, bleeding gums.
  • Stage 2 — If not addressed, gingivitis progresses to early periodontitis. This occurs when the infection advances under the gumline, forms periodontal pockets, and damages bone and soft tissue structures that help stabilize the teeth. At this stage, less than 25% of the tooth’s attachment is lost, but the periodontal pockets trap more food debris and attract more bacteria, and the condition worsens.
  • Stage 3 — As periodontal disease progresses, periodontal pockets deepen and bacteria reach the tooth roots and surrounding bone. This weakens the attachment between the tooth and its supporting structures, leading to loose teeth and possibly tooth root abscesses. At this stage, 25% to 50% of tooth attachment is lost.
  • Stage 4 — Pets with advanced periodontitis (i.e., greater than 50% attachment loss) have extensively damaged tissues, ligaments, and bone supporting their teeth, resulting in tooth loss and serious infection. During this stage, periodontal bacteria can enter the bloodstream, affect major organs, such as the heart, liver, and kidneys, and cause systemic health issues.

Most pets show no signs in the early disease stages, and bad breath may be the only indication your furry friend is affected. As the condition progresses, signs may include excessive drooling, red and swollen gums, discolored teeth, nasal or ocular discharge, dropped food, and eating on only one side of the mouth.

Periodontal disease treatment in pets

To stage your pet’s periodontal disease and determine the best treatment course, your veterinarian will thoroughly evaluate their mouth and oral structures. They will also take dental X-rays, because a significant portion of each tooth is below the gumline and not visible. Treatment will depend on the stage of periodontal disease.

  • Stage 1 — Treatment is relatively uncomplicated and involves dental scaling to remove plaque and tartar from the tooth surface and below the gumline, polishing the teeth to help prevent future plaque accumulation, and irrigation to flush out bacteria and debris.
  • Stage 2 — For early periodontitis, treatment includes dental scaling, polishing, and irrigation, as well as scaling below the gum line and locally applied antibiotics if periodontal pockets are present.
  • Stage 3 — If your pet has moderate periodontitis, your veterinarian may refer your pet to a dental specialist for advanced restorative procedures to save the affected teeth. If this is not an option, tooth extraction and systemic antibiotics are recommended.
  • Stage 4 — At this stage, affected teeth are too diseased to save and cause your pet significant pain. Extraction is the only treatment option.

Resorptive lesions in pets

Resorptive lesions are a common problem for cats and can also occur in dogs. The condition leads to the breakdown of the tooth’s hard tissue, leading to tooth destruction or loss. Pits or erosions can often be seen on the tooth surface, typically near the gumline. The exact cause is unknown, but contributing factors may include irritation from periodontal disease, tooth damage, and excess vitamin D intake.

Signs of resorptive lesions
In the early stages, pets usually don’t show signs, but once resorption progresses above the gumline, the condition is typically painful. Signs include increased drooling, bleeding from the mouth, difficulty eating, teeth chattering, and behavioral changes such as hiding.

Diagnosis of resorptive lesions
X-rays are required to diagnose resorptive lesions, and your pet will need anesthesia so your veterinarian can take clear images.

Treatment of resorptive lesions
Treatment depends on the extent and severity of resorption, and the specific tooth affected. If resorption is mild and your pet is not in pain, your veterinarian may recommend monitoring. Advanced cases require root canal therapy and removing part or all of the affected tooth.

At-home dental care for your pet

Every pet should have a professional veterinary dental exam at least annually, and most pets need a dental cleaning every year. These visits are vital to keep your pet’s mouth healthy, but at-home dental care is also crucial, because plaque starts accumulating soon after your pet eats. This means you need to intervene daily to promote your pet’s dental health. Recommendations include:

  • Toothbrushing — Daily toothbrushing is the best way to help prevent plaque and tartar buildup on your pet’s pearly whites. Use a pet-specific toothpaste, since human dental products often contain ingredients toxic to pets, and go slowly, so your pet adjusts to the idea of their teeth being cleaned.
  • Dental treats — Dental treats are specially formulated to help remove plaque and reduce bacterial accumulation. Choose products approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council to ensure the treat is safe and effective.
  • Dental diets — Some pets benefit from prescription dental diets. Ask your veterinarian if one is appropriate for your furry pal.

Neglecting your pet’s oral health can result in serious health consequences. Call your AAHA-accredited veterinary practice to schedule your pet’s annual dental exam and cleaning.