National Pet Dental Health Month

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

National Pet Dental Health Month

February is National Pet Dental Health Month as proclaimed through a joint effort by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC). This annual event 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 shape 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 disease throughout other parts of the body. Pet Dental Health Month draws attention to the fact that good dental hygiene and awareness improves the overall health of our pet family members giving them the opportunity to live long, healthy lives without complicating health issues related to their teeth and gums. 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.

According to research done by the AVDC and the pet health insurance industry, approximately 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have some degree of periodontal disease by the time they reach age three, and this condition will only worsen if preventive measures are not taken. This may seem like a young age for these symptoms to appear; however, one must remember that a three-year-old dog or cat is the same as a twenty-eight-year-old human. And a 28-year-old human who has not had the preventive dental care that most people receive may begin to show signs of periodontal disease as well. Preventive care can help protect your pet and catch problems before they become more serious. Most pet dental disease occurs below the gum line where you cannot see it. Periodontal disease begins when bacteria in the mouth form plaque that sticks to the surface of the teeth. Aided by the minerals found in saliva plaque begins to harden into calculus or tartar as it is sometimes called. This tartar is firmly attached to the teeth and many times people can see the darkened tartar on the teeth. However, this is only the beginning of trouble. The real culprit develops as plaque and tartar spread under the gum line. Bacteria in this hidden environment under the gum line, and between the teeth and gum, is the real culprit in the development of periodontal disease. These bacteria create a cycle of damage to the supporting tissues surrounding the tooth that will eventually destroy the tooth and it will either need to be extracted or it will fall out on its own. If left unattended, periodontal disease will progress into diseases that aren’t just bad for your pet’s teeth, it can damage the heart, liver, and kidneys as well. It can cause everyday pain, loose teeth making it difficult to chew food, bleeding gums, tooth loss, poor appetite, lack of energy and reluctance to play or be part of family activities. That is why your pet should have a dental examination at least once every year and Pet Dental Health Month each February is an annual reminder to take your pet to the veterinarian for a comprehensive examination of all body functions including dental health. Many animal hospitals have special discounted charges for pets who visit their veterinarian during this month-long emphasis placed on healthy pets.

Discovering dental disease in cats can be even more difficult than in dogs. Veterinary dentists are not sure what causes tooth resorption in cats, but 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 to preserve the best health and well-being of the cat.

Just like people, dogs accumulate tartar at different rates. If your pet’s teeth have lost their healthy and shiny-white look, consult your veterinarian to schedule a professional cleaning of the teeth. Most veterinarians utilize a general anesthesia procedure that allows them to invade the area between the teeth and gums to clean out the plaque, tartar and other debris that causes the problem. Although cavities are less common in pets than in people, pets can have many of the same problems that occur in people. Periodontal disease is the most frequently diagnosed and the most debilitating oral disease; however, broken teeth, root abscesses, tumors in the mouth, misalignment of the teeth, cysts, and broken bones that support the teeth can create severe eating and chewing problems that lead to more complicated issues. Both dogs and cats should be checked frequently at home for signs of dental disease. If symptoms such as bad breath, red and inflamed gums, broken or loose teeth, discolored or tartar covered teeth, abnormal chewing or drooling from the mouth are observed your pet should be scheduled for an examination by your veterinarian. Many times, the symptoms are discreet such as refusal to eat, drooling or dropping food from the mouth, evidence of pain by rubbing the face with the paws or bleeding around the mouth. Any of these signs should trigger a call to your veterinarian.

There are steps that a family can take at home to prevent dental disease in dogs and cats. As we do with our own dental care it is possible to brush your pet’s teeth. With some cautions regarding the safety of the family member, and depending upon the temperament of the animal, daily brushing with a tooth brush is considered a major benefit in preventing periodontal disease and maintaining good oral health in your pets. Gentle brushing with a soft bristled tooth brush 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 or 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. There are several home care oral hygiene options from which to choose, but keep in mind that anything you can do to help prevent plaque and tartar accumulation will pay big dividends. What really matters is whether home oral hygiene will be provided over the long haul as considerable effort applied for a short period or occasionally will be of no long-term benefit. Brushing at least three times per week is recommended to maintain optimal dental health. Almost all dogs will eventually accept brushing. The key to success is to be patient and gradual in your approach, brushing mainly the outsides of the cheek teeth located under the upper lip. A dog that resists brushing may have painful areas in the mouth that need to be addressed, and upon correcting they will accept the brushing effort much more readily.

Pet food manufacturers have developed dry food that is designed to help scale the plaque and tartar from the teeth of your pets. Research by these companies have found that the kibble size and the content of the food product influences the development of plaque and tartar in your pet’s mouth. It is important that your dog chew this food rather than swallow it whole for best results. Treats such as OraVet chews, Milk-Bone 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 to aid in this process.

Chlorhexidine oral rinse is the most effective anti-plaque antiseptic. Chlorhexidine binds to the oral tissues and tooth surfaces and is gradually released into the oral cavity. It is safe for pets and rarely causes problems, though it does have a bitter taste if palatability enhancers suitable for dogs are not included. Some dogs may object to the taste of products containing chlorhexidine while others accept it with no difficulty. The rinse is applied by squirting a small amount inside the cheek on each side of the mouth. The chlorhexidine gel is applied by smearing it onto the teeth. The tongue and lips will spread the rinse or gel around the mouth. 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.

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 pet. 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 advertisement 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.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of treatment” certainly relates to dental issues in both dogs and cats.


American Veterinary Medical Association at http://www.avma.org
American Veterinary Dental College at http://www.avdc.org
Veterinary Oral Health Council at http://www.vohc.org


Bruce W. Little, DVM