Your Pet’s Dental Care

Golden retriever with toothbrush

Did you brush your teeth this morning? Most people brush their teeth daily and see their dentist twice a year. But, you may be surprised to know that your pet needs the same level of dental care. Dental disease can cause serious problems for your pet, including devastating systemic issues. Fortunately, the appropriate dental care can protect your pet against this serious disease.

Why is dental care important for my pet?

After your pet finishes their dinner, small food particles remain lodged between their teeth and attract bacteria, which form a sticky layer of plaque on the tooth surface. If not removed promptly, the plaque hardens into tartar, which inflames your pet’s gums.

The bacteria then invade under your pet’s gumline and damage the supporting structures of their teeth. Dental disease is a serious infection that can wreak havoc throughout your furry friend’s body. Potential consequences include:

  • Painful, bleeding gums — The oral bacteria irritate the gum tissue, leading to painful, swollen gums that may bleed when your pet eats or chews a toy.
  • Loose or missing teeth — As the infection progresses and damages the tooth’s supporting structures, your pet’s teeth may become loose or fall out.
  • Tooth root abscesses — If the bacteria invade the tooth root, they can cause an infection. In some cases, the abscess ruptures, causing a draining tract in your pet’s face or jaw.
  • Oro-nasal fistula — The bacteria can also tunnel through the tissue between your pet’s mouth and nose, allowing food and saliva to enter your pet’s nasal cavity, which may result in a respiratory infection.
  • Oral tumors — Chronic inflammation from dental disease increases a pet’s risk for oral tumors.
  • Organ damage — Periodontal bacteria don’t limit themselves to your pet’s mouth. Left untreated, the infection enters the bloodstream and damages vital organs, such as the heart, kidneys, and liver.

What are dental disease signs in pets?

Many pets with dental disease show no signs because they are experts at hiding pain and discomfort. This is why regular dental exams are so important to your pet’s health. When the disease progresses, you may notice:

  • Bad breath
  • Excessive drooling
  • Discolored (e.g., yellow or brown) teeth
  • Red, swollen gums
  • Blood on your pet’s chew toys
  • Tilting the head to eat or eating on only one side of the mouth
  • Dropping food
  • Nasal or ocular discharge
  • Facial swelling

What happens during a professional veterinary dental cleaning?

During a professional dental cleaning, the veterinarian thoroughly examines and evaluates your pet’s entire mouth and oral structures, and cleans their teeth. Steps involve:

  • Conscious oral exam — The veterinarian will examine your pet’s mouth, looking for dental disease signs and any abnormalities.
  • Blood work — A professional dental cleaning requires anesthesia, so the veterinary team will perform blood work to ensure your pet has no underlying health issues that would complicate the procedure.
  • Anesthesia — The veterinary team will place an intravenous (IV) catheter and induce anesthesia, monitoring your pet closely throughout the procedure until they are fully recovered.
  • Dental X-rays — More than 50% of a tooth’s structure is below the gumline and can only be seen on X-rays.
  • Teeth scaling — The veterinary team uses specialized dental instruments to remove plaque and tartar from the tooth surface above and below the gumline.
  • Polishing — Scaling leaves microabrasions on the tooth surface, and the veterinary team will polish your pet’s teeth so bacteria cannot adhere to these lesions.
  • Periodontal probing — The veterinary team will probe around each tooth, looking for abnormally deep areas and pockets.
  • Extractions — In some cases, dental disease damages the tooth and the supporting structures, and extractions are necessary.
  • Antibiotic treatment — If your pet’s dental disease is extensive, and especially if they require an extraction, the veterinarian will prescribe antibiotics.

Why does my pet need anesthesia for a veterinary dental cleaning?

Have you seen advertisements for anesthesia-free dental cleanings? Have you been tempted? It’s important to know that these services do not effectively address your pet’s dental health. Anesthesia is necessary for several reasons:

  • Less stress — From your pet’s perspective, a dental cleaning involves a team of strangers using sharp, pointy instruments near their face. Anesthesia helps prevent unnecessary stress and anxiety.
  • Stay still! — The veterinary team needs your pet to remain perfectly still so they can thoroughly examine their mouth and remove plaque and tartar.
  • Going the distance — If your pet is not anesthetized, the veterinary team can’t remove the bacteria under the gumline, where the most damage occurs.
  • Safety first — Anesthetizing your pet helps prevent injury to your furry pal, as well as the veterinary team.
How can I take care of my pet’s teeth at home?

At-home dental care is also necessary to keep your pet’s mouth healthy. Plaque starts to accumulate only hours after your pet eats, so yearly dental cleanings aren’t enough to prevent dental disease. Ways you can promote your pet’s dental health include:

  • Daily brushing — Brushing your pet’s teeth daily is the best way to help reduce plaque accumulation. Use a pet-specific toothbrush with soft bristles that will not irritate your pet’s gums, and never use human toothpaste, which is often toxic to pets. Pet-specific toothpaste comes in flavors, such as poultry, beef, seafood, and peanut butter.
  • Dental chews — Chewing can help remove some plaque from your pet’s teeth. Choose dental treats and chews with the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s seal of approval that guarantees the product is effective.
  • Water additives — Additives that you put in your pet’s water can help reduce plaque accumulation.
  • Dental diets — Dental diets are specially formulated to help remove plaque and reduce accumulation. Ask your veterinarian if this food type would benefit your pet.

The next time your pet gives you a sloppy kiss, pay attention to the smell of their breath. If your pet’s breath has you reeling, contact your AAHA-accredited veterinary practice to schedule a veterinary dental exam and cleaning.