If your pet’s breath has you grimacing, they could have dental disease, since most adult pets are affected by this serious issue. In addition to bad breath, poor dental health can cause significant pain for your pet when bacteria grows around their gum line and spreads throughout the body, affecting organs such as the heart and kidneys. Our team at the Animal Medical Center wants to provide information about dental disease, and explain how you can improve your pet’s oral health.

How does dental disease affect pets?

Plaque, which is a transparent, adhesive substance that forms on your pet’s teeth, is composed of mucin, sloughed epithelial cells, and aerobic, gram-positive bacteria. If plaque is not removed, hard dental calculus (i.e., tartar) will form when mineral salts in your pet’s food precipitate. This irritates the gingival tissue and changes the mouth’s pH, allowing bacteria to grow beneath the gum line. These bacteria can harm the tooth’s supporting structures (i.e. periodontium), which include the gingiva, cementum, periodontal ligament, and alveolar supporting bone. Periodontal disease is staged depending on how significantly the periodontium is affected.

  • Stage 1 — Stage one is called gingivitis, and occurs when inflammation is present, but the tooth’s support system is intact. The gingiva around the teeth become red, swollen, and inflamed. In severe cases, bleeding may occur along the gum line. Treatment includes cleaning and polishing the pet’s teeth, to help prevent plaque accumulation.
  • Stage 2 — Stage two is early periodontitis, and is diagnosed when less than 25 percent of support is lost. Periodontitis occurs when gingivitis is not controlled. The periodontium is weakened by inflammation and bacterial byproducts. In addition to signs seen in gingivitis, stage two signs include bad breath, drooling, decreased appetite, and odd head placement when eating. Treatment involves plaque removal and applying a local antimicrobial if pocketing along the gum line is present.
  • Stage 3 — Stage three is moderate periodontitis that is diagnosed when 25 to 50 percent of the support is lost. Treatment is similar to stage two.
  • Stage 4 — Stage four is advanced periodontitis, and is diagnosed when greater than 50 percent of support is lost. Treatment typically involves surgery to extract or treat affected teeth.

How can I improve my pet’s oral health?

The only way to effectively remove the plaque beneath the gum line is a professional veterinary dental cleaning. Your pet should have a thorough oral examination at least once a year to evaluate their need for a dental cleaning. This process involves:

  • Anesthesia — Your pet will need to be anesthetized to ensure the procedure can be performed effectively, and to cause less stress for your pet. Blood work will be performed to ensure your pet is healthy enough to undergo anesthesia. Our team will place an intravenous catheter to receive supportive fluids and pain medication, if needed.  During the procedure, a trained professional will continuously monitor your pet’s vital signs, and will immediately alert your veterinarian in the unlikely event of complications.
  • X-rays — Dental X-rays are necessary to accurately diagnose dental disease, because a large portion of the tooth is below the gum line, and not visible during an oral examination. 
  • Oral exam — Your pet’s mouth will be thoroughly examined, looking for plaque and tartar, pocketing along the gumline, loose teeth, and any other abnormalities.
  • Cleaning — Your pet’s teeth will be scaled to remove plaque and tartar. Then the teeth will be polished above and below the gum line, to help prevent plaque accumulation.

How can I care for my pet’s oral health between visits?

After a professional cleaning, plaque starts forming in two days, making dental home care important to keep your pet’s mouth healthy. Steps you can take include:

  • Toothbrushing — Brushing your pet’s teeth is the best step you can take to improve their oral health. Studies show that three times a week is sufficient to maintain healthy teeth and gums, but daily brushing is required to control existing gingivitis. Use only toothpaste formulated for pets, because human toothpaste can be poisonous for pets. Use an infant toothbrush or one designed for pets.

When beginning a brushing regimen, start slowly, and bring your patience. If your pet is not used to having their teeth brushed, they may initially resist. Start by getting them used to having their mouth handled. Once they are comfortable with this step, get them used to the toothbrush. When they accept the toothbrush, apply toothpaste and start to brush their front teeth in a circular motion, ensuring you are brushing under the gum line. You can open their mouth and brush their back teeth once they adjust to the process.

  • Dental diets — Commercial diets are available to reduce plaque formation. These foods work by either mechanically cleansing the teeth using enhanced textural kibble characteristics, or by coating the food with polyphosphate, which binds minerals in the saliva, making them unavailable for calculus development.
  • Dental treats — Chewing on an appropriate chew treat can substantially decrease plaque and tartar accumulation. Choose only treats sanctioned by the Veterinary Oral Health Council.

Prioritize your pet’s oral health to keep them healthy and pain free. Our team at the Animal Medical Center is concerned about promoting pet welfare in every way possible. Contact us if you have any questions, or to schedule your pet’s dental evaluation.