Pets and people have similar dental needs, yet pet oral health care is often overlooked and underestimated. The truth is, periodontal disease—the most common pet dental issue—is evident in 70% of cats and 80% of dogs by 2 years of age. February is National Pet Dental Health Month and Neighborhood Veterinary Centers wants to take this opportunity to answer your pet dental health questions.

Question: What is pet periodontal disease?

Answer: Periodontal disease starts with bacteria and plaque sticking to teeth. Over time, the plaque hardens into calculus (i.e., tartar), which is unsightly, but not the actual disease cause. The real problem occurs when bacteria and plaque migrate below the gum line and cause gingivitis (i.e., red, swollen, bleeding gums). Left untreated, gingivitis progresses to periodontitis, and results in inflammation and breakdown of tooth-supporting tissues, including gums, tooth ligaments, tooth roots, and the jaw bone. End-stage periodontal disease results in tooth loss.

Q: What are the consequences of untreated pet periodontal disease?

A: If you’ve ever had a toothache, you know that dental problems can be extremely painful. Pets whose periodontal disease is not treated experience this chronic pain, which reduces their ability to eat and play, and lowers quality of life. Additionally, oral bacteria can enter the bloodstream and spread to distant sites, creating a chronic inflammatory state that can lead to local complications, including:

  • Jaw bone fractures from excessive bone damage
  • Oronasal fistula (i.e., a hole between the mouth and sinus or nasal cavity)
  • Infection (i.e., abscess) or inflammation around and behind the eyes
  • Increased oral cancer risk
  • Infection or dead bone areas (i.e., osteomyelitis)

Q: Do pets suffer from other oral diseases or conditions?

A: While periodontal disease is the most common dental issue in dogs and cats, a few other conditions commonly occur, alone or combined with periodontal disease. These include:

  • Tooth resorption in cats
  • Widespread mouth inflammation and ulcers in cats (i.e., stomatitis)
  • Tooth fractures, which can lead to root infections if the inner tooth pulp is exposed
  • Unerupted teeth or retained baby teeth
  • Excessive tooth wear or malformed enamel
  • Jaw bone cysts
  • Gum tissue overgrowth or bumps

Q: Which pets are most often affected by dental health issues?

A: Dogs and cats have similar dental problem incidence, but some dog breeds are more prone to issues. Small, toy, and flat-faced (i.e., brachycephalic) breeds usually develop dental disease faster than other dogs because of tooth crowding and misaligned bites (i.e. malocclusion). Some pets are prone to specific conditions, including boxers with overgrown gum tissue, cats with tooth resorption, and heavy chewers who fracture or wear their teeth down. 

Q: How do I know if my pet has dental disease?

A: Because pets hide pain well, they often continue eating and acting normal at home, despite painful teeth. The best way to keep tabs on your pet’s dental health is an annual wellness examination, which will include a thorough dental evaluation. Schedule a veterinary visit if you notice any of the following possible dental disease signs:

  • Drooling
  • Pawing at the mouth
  • Bad breath
  • Dropping food or changing eating habits
  • Teeth with visible yellow or brown plaque
  • Red, bleeding, or swollen gums
  • Broken teeth

Q: What can I do to keep my pet’s mouth healthy?

A: Daily toothbrushing is the best way to remove bacteria and plaque and prevent them from causing periodontal disease. Use a pet-safe toothpaste, and train your pet with positive methods to accept toothbrushing. Your veterinarian can recommend other Veterinary Oral Health Council-approved products that will help keep your pet’s teeth clean. Don’t let pets chew on hard objects, such as animal bones and cage bars, that could fracture their teeth.

Q: Do pets need professional dental cleanings like people?

A: Yes! Despite daily brushing, pets still need regular professional dental cleanings—under anesthesia—to clean their teeth and assess their oral health. A professional dental cleaning and evaluation includes dental X-rays, which are the only way to uncover problems below the gum line that occur in 28% of dogs and 41% of cats with healthy-looking teeth. Treatments, such as tooth extractions, can be performed as needed. We recommend dental cleaning every 6 to 12 months, depending on your pet’s individual dental health.

If your pet is showing dental disease signs, or you’d like to schedule a consultation or professional dental cleaning, contact Neighborhood Veterinary Centers to find a hospital near you.