Pet Dental Health Month

by Bruce W. Little, DVM


February 1 marks the beginning of National Pet Dental Health Month. This annual event sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC) provides information and recommendations about the most frequently diagnosed disease that effects dogs and cats, dental and gum disease, collectively called oral disease. Most dogs exhibit some indications of dental disease by the time they are three years old, depending on the conformation of their face and mouth, and depending upon the professional dental care and home dental care the family provides for their pet. More than just a cosmetic issue, dental problems in pets can be a sign of serious disease. Created by the AVMA in the 1990’s, Pet Dental Health Month draws attention to the fact that good dental hygiene and awareness improves the dental health of our pet family members giving them the opportunity to live long lives without complicating health issues related to their teeth and gingiva. All too frequently, by the time a pet owner realizes there is a problem with both dogs and cats, the oral disease has already progressed to the extent that it is causing serious issues with the animal’s health and well-being.

A common first indication in dogs that a problem exists might be a repugnant breath or body odor emanating from the pet. Most dogs have a characteristic breath odor, probably as a result of the food they eat or the items they pick up with their mouths; however, periodontal disease will eventually progress to a noticeable and increasing halitosis (bad breath). Other indications that your family dog is experiencing oral disease is red or swollen gums, brown or yellowish teeth, bleeding from the mouth, frequent pawing or rubbing at the face and reluctance to eat hard foods. If you observe any of these signs on a consistent basis, you should contact your local animal hospital and make an appointment to have him evaluated for oral disease. All dogs should see their doctor at least annually for a physical examination, evaluation, dental cleaning and periodontal therapy if needed. February, being National Pet Dental Health Month is a perfect opportunity to not only have your pets evaluated for dental issues, but in many cases animal hospitals offer special pricing on dental diagnosis and therapy during this national observance. Some dogs will need to be seen by their veterinarian more frequently depending upon their individual condition. Not only can periodontitis cause problems with eating and digestion of food, it can harbor bacteria that eventually transfers to the blood stream and can cause severe heart, kidney and liver disease.

Veterinary dentistry includes the cleaning, adjustment, filing, extraction, and repair of your pets’ teeth and all other aspects of oral health care. These procedures should be performed by a veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary dentist. Veterinary technicians are allowed to perform certain dental procedures under the supervision of a veterinarian in many states. There are, however, an increasing number of individuals who are not veterinarians that are advertising pet dental cleanings without anesthesia. This procedure without anesthesia may help to freshen your dog’s breath and make his smile look better on a temporary basis; however, most of the problems in dog’s and cat’s mouths are not visible without anesthesia and x-rays. The devil lies below the gum line! The process begins with an oral examination of your pet’s mouth by a veterinarian. X-rays may be needed to evaluate the health of the jaw and the tooth roots below the gum line.

Because most dental disease occurs below the gum line, where you cannot see it, a thorough dental cleaning and evaluation should be performed under general anesthesia. Anesthesia makes it possible to perform the dental procedures with less stress and pain for your pet. In addition, anesthesia allows for a better cleaning because your pet is not moving around and risking injury from the dental equipment. If x-rays are needed, your pet needs to be very still in order to get good images, and this is unlikely without anesthesia. With individualized anesthesia protocols and appropriate monitoring, veterinary dental procedures are safer now than ever before for dogs and cats. It is best to take you pet to an animal hospital that has trained staff who can perform all procedures including anesthesia and radiography (x-rays) at least once per year for their maximum health and well-being.

Periodontal disease has an increased incidence in senior animals, as do any of the dental conditions that can increase over time, such as tooth resorption in cats. Extensive periodontal disease that has destroyed mandibular bone can lead to fractures, sometimes on both sides of the mouth that have insufficient bone structure for stabilization. Discovering dental disease in cats can be even more difficult than in dogs. Veterinary dentists are not sure what causes tooth resorption in cats, a process whereby the cells on the inside of the tooth begin to eat their way to the outside and the tooth decays from the inside of the tooth out. By the time they are diagnosed, it is often too late to do anything for the cat other than to extract the problem tooth. Cats also get periodontal disease, although with less severity and frequency than dogs. This is the reason cats should see their veterinarian at least once per year to have a comprehensive physical examination to detect these difficult and sometimes almost impossible conditions in order to preserve the best health for the cat.

There are steps that can be taken to prevent dental disease in dogs and cats. As we do with our own dental care, it is possible to brush your dog and cat’s teeth daily. With some cautions regarding the safety of the family member, and depending upon the temperament of the animal, daily brushing with a soft-bristle tooth brush or a piece of gauze over your finger is considered a major benefit in preventing periodontal disease and maintaining good oral health for your pets. Gentle brushing will help to remove plaque and tartar from the teeth. One can use dog toothpaste purchased from your veterinarian or at the pet store; however, evidence is present that brushing with water only can have the same effect as using dog tooth paste. It is not recommended that you use human tooth paste as it may contain fluoride and other chemicals that can cause kidney problems if swallowed. There is no need to start brushing a dog’s teeth until they are about one year of age, although some dogs will be easier to start the tooth brushing process as early as three or four months when the dog is undergoing various other training processes so that when they become a year old, the tooth brushing process is better accepted.

Many companies have developed and proven effective in clinical trials, dog and cat treats that help in removing plaque thus mitigating the cause of periodontal disease in pets. Treats such as Milk-Bone Brushing Chews, Greenies, and CET chews may have some affect in controlling plaque and tartar. There are also water additives, oral sprays, gels and dental sealants that can be purchased from your veterinarian or pet store to aid in this process. Pet food companies have developed foods that aid in controlling plaque and tartar. The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) has listed numerous products that have earned the VOHC Seal of Acceptance in dentifrice products. The list of products that have received the VOHC Seal of Acceptance can be found at http://www.vohc.org.

The average cost for preventing oral disease in dogs and cats is approximately three times less expensive than treatment for these conditions in most cases, according to a recent survey performed by the Veterinary Pet Insurance Company (VPI). It behooves pet owners to pay close attention to the oral health of their pets, both from the standpoint of the health and well-being of the pet and the cost for maintaining a healthy pet. The best source of information is your animal hospital for a dental checkup at least once per year. A comprehensive oral examination can eliminate gum disease, malformed teeth that causes pain and discomfort to the animal, oral cancers that can be removed if caught in time and many other possible conditions that are detrimental to the health of your family dog or cat. For those animals that exhibit some stage of periodontal disease, it may be necessary to x-ray the pet’s mouth to fully diagnose the conditions necessary to correct them. Although you may see advertisements to the contrary, general anesthesia is usually necessary for a complete and thorough oral examination by your veterinarian. The plaque that accumulates below the gum line is the culprit in periodontal disease and it can only be properly diagnosed and treated while the dog or cat is under general anesthesia.

The old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of treatment” certainly relates to dental issues in both dogs and cats. For more information on oral disease in dogs and cats, go to:



American Veterinary Medical Association at http://www.avma.org American Veterinary Dental College at http://www.avdc.org


Bruce W. Little, DVM