Dental Health Basics for Cats and Dogs

Did you know that the leading cause of health issues affecting your pet is hiding in his or her mouth? A recent study cited dental disease to be the most common health problem affecting our dog and cat population today. At least 78% of dogs and 68% of cats older than age three suffer from some form of dental disease, and numbers are on the rise.

Failing to take proper care of your pet's teeth can lead to more than just stained teeth and stinky breath; studies have shown that dental disease can contribute to systemic health and organ issues such as heart and lung disease and diabetes. Keeping your pet's mouth in tip-top shape is an integral part of overall health.

What Exactly is Dental Disease?
Dental disease refers to any condition that affects the health of the tooth or of its surrounding structures. Plaque is the soft substance that builds up daily on the surface of teeth and can be removed by brushing. Over time, bacteria from the mouth combine with plaque to form a wall of tartar referred to as calculus (which is often the yellow or brown "stain" you see on your pet's teeth).

Once calculus has formed, it can not be removed with brushing alone. What's more, the bacteria begin to irritate the surrounding gum tissue and structures, leading to conditions such as gingivitis and periodontal disease. Over time this can lead to tooth decay, loose teeth and infections, which can all be painful for your pet. Luckily, most of these problems can be prevented with routine dental care.
It's All About Prevention
Just as with our own teeth, prevention is best when it comes to your pet's dental health. Here's what pet owners can do:
  • Brush regularly. For owners who are willing and able, brushing a pet's teeth is always a good idea. The first step is to make sure you are using toothpaste designed specifically for pets, as human toothpaste can be harmful or toxic to pets if ingested. Pet toothpaste comes in many different flavors, from traditional mint to poultry, so you're likely to find one that your cat or dog finds appetizing. Look for a toothpaste that is specifically formulated for dogs and cats and contains enzymes to help break down plaque (enzymes listed on the ingredient list will frequently end in "-ase"). Ask your veterinarian for his or her brand recommendations.

    For best results, it's a good idea to acquaint your pet to the concept of brushing starting at a young age, although older pets can certainly learn to tolerate brushing, too. I generally encourage owners to start by offering a small amount of the pet toothpaste on their finger first, which allows their pet to become accustomed to the taste. After that, a toothbrush can be introduced. There are a variety of pet toothbrushes available, from small rubber brushes that slide over your finger to a child's size or traditional toothbrush. Choose one that your pet will tolerate that is appropriate to his or her size. Your veterinarian can help you determine the best option for your dog or cat.

    Brush your pet's teeth as you would your own, in a circular motion, hitting all surfaces. In pets who are not as receptive, try to pay special attention to the canines (or "fangs") and premolars (also known as the "cheek" teeth) as these teeth generally collect the most tartar buildup. While you might wish to introduce toothpaste at an early age, I do not recommend brushing puppies' teeth while they are still teething. Their mouths might feel painful, which could lead to a negative experience that could cause them to shy away from brushing in the future.
  •  Offer at least some dry kibble (if possible). Canned food often gets a bad rap for causing dental disease in dogs and cats. In reality, it is likely not the canned food itself, but a lack of dry food in the diet, that can lead to dental problems. In certain cases, such as dogs or cats with specific health conditions, it might be necessary for pets to be on a strictly canned or soft food diet, but from a dental standpoint, most pets benefit from some form of dry food in their diet. The mechanical action of chewing on dry kibble helps break down the soft plaque as it forms on your pet's teeth. Veterinary prescription diets which are specially formulated to help reduce bacteria-laden plaque may also be helpful for some pets. Ask your veterinarian for his or her recommendations.
  • Encourage chew toys. Anything that promotes chewing is probably beneficial to your pet simply for the reasons stated above. Chew toys (especially for dogs) can manually help remove plaque from the surface of the teeth. Some treats and toys are fortified with enzymes and antiseptics that help reduce bacteria load and, in turn, freshen breath. While these items do not take the place of regular brushing or cleaning, they can be a great addition to your pet's regular dental regimen. If you are unsure about whether or not a specific toy or treat is safe for your pet, check with your veterinarian.
  • Go to the vet for regular dental cleanings. While I do come across the occasional diligent owner who is willing and able to brush their dog's teeth once or even twice daily, these are definitely the minority of pet owners. Even with regular brushing, plaque still builds up on the enamel surface and below the gum line. For this reason, regular dental cleanings performed by your veterinarian are still the best standard of care for your pet's teeth. Routine dental cleanings can help prevent your pet from developing loose or decayed teeth or major problems such as a tooth root abscess down the road.
FAQs about Pets and Dental Cleanings

1.     Are they really necessary for pets?
As a veterinarian, one of the most common questions I receive from pet owners is, "Does my dog or cat really need a dental cleaning?" In short, the answer is yes. In an ideal world, we would have dental cleanings performed on our pets every six months just as we do for ourselves to preserve the health of our own teeth. Realistically, taking your pet in for a bi-annual cleaning may not be affordable or necessary for everyone. There are additional factors to take into consideration when it comes to our pets, such as the cost of dental cleanings and risk of anesthesia. My best advice is to have regular dental cleanings performed on your dog or cat whenever recommended by your veterinarian and to do your best to take care of your pet's teeth in between veterinary visits. A good, at-home dental care routine can go a long way in terms of your pet's oral health and will help minimize the need for more frequent cleanings.

2. How do I know if my pet needs a dental cleaning?
Your veterinarian is the expert when it comes to recommendations for your pet's oral health. He or she will likely let you know when it is time for a thorough dental cleaning. Bad breath, red or irritated gums, excessive drooling or an aversion to dry food may all be signs that your pet is in need of or overdue for a cleaning.

3. What really happens during a dental cleaning and what can I expect?
A thorough dental cleaning for your dog or cat should be performed at your veterinary clinic under anesthesia (more on that later). Some clinics do offer non-anesthetic procedures, but there are limitations to the extent that a comprehensive exam and cleaning can be performed on a pet that is awake. Most clinics offer pre-anesthetic blood work to help identify any organ issues that might not make your pet a good anesthetic candidate as well as fluids to keep him or her hydrated during the procedure. Your veterinarian will be able to help you decide which test and treatment options are a good fit for your pet.

On the day of your pet's procedure, he or she will likely be dropped off in the morning and go home the same afternoon. Aside from anesthesia, a dental cleaning for your pet consists of the same basic principles as it does for us: a scaling, polish and fluoride treatment. For pets whose teeth are in fairly good shape, the cleaning itself is rather quick, minimizing the time spent under anesthesia. Some pets with more advanced dental disease may require extractions or other procedures. Unless your pet is very resistant to examination of his or her mouth while awake, your veterinarian should be able to give you some idea of where your pet stands before the dental cleaning.

4. What about the cost and effects of anesthesia?
As a pet owner myself, I realize it is an investment to save up for your dog or cat's regular dental cleanings. I also empathize with owners who want to minimize the effects of anesthetic procedures on their pet. In most cases, the benefits of a thorough dental cleaning in terms of your pet's health far outweigh the risks of anesthesia. Think of it as a long-term investment in your pet's overall well-being. When it comes to special circumstances such as sick or older pets, always defer to your veterinarian's recommendations.

5. Can a pet be too old for a dental cleaning?
One of the biggest concerns I often hear from owners of older pets is the risk of anesthesia. In reality, our older dogs and cats can often benefit the most from a cleaning. Given the proper physical exam, blood work and pre-anesthetic workup, most older pets will do well under anesthesia. Some veterinarians may differ on their recommendations here but as long as your older pet is otherwise healthy, it's best to have a thorough cleaning performed before he or she is in a situation where you are forced into a dental cleaning with a pet with an abscessed or decayed tooth. A dental cleaning is also a great time to perform a thorough exam to look for oral tumors which are more prevalent in older pets. As always, discuss any concerns with your veterinarian who has an established relationship with you and your pet.
Your pet's oral health is an integral part of his or her overall well-being. Although dental cleanings can be pricey, they truly are the best way to ensure your dog or cat's teeth remain at their healthiest. With regular dental cleanings and a proper at-home routine, you can keep your pet's mouth in excellent condition for years to come.
Azarpazhooh, A and Tenenbaum, HC. “Separating fact from fiction: use of high-level evidence from research synthesis to identify disease and disorders associated with periodontal disease.” J Can Dent Assoc. (2012) 78.
Banfield Pet Hospital, “State of Pet Health 2011 Report,”, accessed July 11, 2013.
 Healthy, “AAHA Dental Care Guidelines,”, accessed July 11, 2013.