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Dental disease in dogs and cats is one of the most common diseases that occur in our pets. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most overlooked. If you ask many pet parents, they’ll tell you they’ve noticed “doggy breath” or “tuna breath” in their pups and kitties, but many people think that bad breath in pets is normal.
Although bad breath in humans can be blamed on a meal heavy in onions or garlic that we had the night before, bad breath in pets isn’t normal. It’s usually indicative of dental disease, which is found in varying stages in almost every adult dog and cat. In fact, by three years of age, most dogs and cats are already exhibiting some degree of dental disease.
This condition not only causes discomfort and mouth pain, it can also dramatically affect your dog’s or cat’s health and quality of life. The inflammation and infection of dental disease can spread to other organs and cause permanent bacterial infections in the body.
What Causes Dental Disease In Dogs and Cats?
Simply put, the villain in the entire dental disease saga is bacteria. Mouths (including our own) naturally contain billions of bacteria that cling to teeth, where they hang out and feed on carbohydrate molecules. These carbohydrates are sticky, so they attract even more molecules that stick to teeth and eventually form plaque, an invisible film that coats the teeth.
Some of the bacteria in this plaque then move underneath the gum line, where they secrete toxins. This stimulates the dog’s or cat’s immune system to produce white blood cells and send them into the spaces between the teeth and gums. Although the purpose of the white cells is to find and eliminate the overgrowth of bacteria, chemicals released by the cells to destroy the bacteria actually cause inflammation and damage to the tissues around the teeth. This in turn causes redness and inflammation of the gums, also known as gingivitis.
As time goes on, mineral deposits on the plaque harden and become calculus, commonly known as tartar. Tartar is made up of a nasty mixture of bacteria, food debris, calcium carbonate, and other organic matter. It’s usually orange-brown in color, and although it’s more commonly found on the outside surface of teeth (against the cheek), it can form anywhere in the mouth.
Once tartar appears and bacteria under the gumline have firmly taken up residence, inflammation causes the gums to start pulling away from the teeth. It also begins causing major problems deeper within the structures of the mouth, including damage to the periodontal ligament (the tissue that attaches the tooth to the underlying jawbone). When this happens, the affected tooth can become loose, begin rotting, or fall out. The jawbone itself can also become infected and start eroding away, leading to jaw fractures.
As if that weren’t bad enough, here’s where it gets really ugly. These bacteria can also migrate into the bloodstream, where they can cause disease and infection in the heart, liver, and kidneys. These migrating bacteria can even lead to the onset of diabetes.
Many veterinarians and researchers believe that dental disease in dogs and cats is increasing because modern-day pets eat diets that make them more prone to developing plaque. Dogs and cats in the wild ate the flesh and bones of prey, which kept their teeth cleaner and stronger. Today, most pets are fed commercial diets that are made up of a combination of small, dry kibble and wet food, which doesn’t scrape the teeth as well as flesh and bone. Also, pets are living longer, which makes the cumulative effect of plaque and tartar worse as time goes on.
Complications of Dental Disease
The list of complications from dental disease is a long one. These can not only cause a dramatic decrease in a dog’s or cat’s quality of life, some can be life-threatening. They include:
- Sinus infections
- Tooth pain and loss
- Weight loss from being unable to chew food
- Chronic tooth abscesses (painful pockets of infection and pus around the tooth roots or at the gumline)
- Sepsis (overwhelming, body-wide bacterial infection)
- Development of autoimmune disease (caused by overstimulation of the immune system)
- Endocarditis (infection of the endocardium, the inner lining around the heart)
- Liver damage
- Onset of diabetes
- Kidney damage
- Development of a heart murmur (due to bacteria depositing on the heart valves)
- Pulmonary edema (fluid build-up in the lungs due to heart damage)
- Decreased lifespan and premature death
Who Is More Prone To Dental Problems?
Small breed and toy dogs are by far the most likely to develop dental problems. It’s believed this is due to the fact that their mouths are smaller and their teeth are more crowded together than those of larger dogs. Dogs who groom themselves also have higher rates of dental disease due to clumps of hair getting lodged between their teeth. Poor nutrition is also a contributing factor.
Some breeds are predisposed to developing dental disease. For dogs, these include small-breed and/or short-nosed dogs like Miniature or Teacup Poodles, Chihuahuas, Yorkshire Terriers, Pugs, Bichon Frises, Pekingeses, Boston Terriers, and Miniature Schnauzers. For cats, breeds include Abyssinians, Maine Coons, Persians, Himalayans, Siamese, and Somalis.
However, any dog or cat can (and usually will) develop dental disease at some point in its lifetime.
Symptoms Of Dental Disease In Dogs And Cats
Symptoms of dental disease can develop slowly, sometimes making them hard to spot. Although foul breath is usually the most common symptom of dental disease, other symptoms can include:
- Pawing at the mouth or face
- Weight loss (caused by decreased food intake due to inability to chew food properly)
- Lethargy or depression (due to mouth pain)
- Poor grooming (especially in cats)
- Bleeding gums
- Swelling on one side of the face (commonly from abscessed teeth)
- Crying out when the head or face is touched
- Discharge from the nose or eyes
Unfortunately, since many pets are good at hiding pain (this is especially true of cats), they may not show outward signs of dental disease until the problem is well-advanced.
Treatment Of Dental Disease
The easiest and most effective way to treat dental disease that has already occurred is to start with a thorough, professional dental cleaning done by your veterinarian’s office. This procedure involves the pet being put under general anesthesia, since a thorough tooth cleaning cannot be performed if the patient is awake.
Although the thought of your dog or cat undergoing a procedure with general anesthetic may initially be intimidating, keep in mind that the level of anesthetic used for a dental procedure is not at the same level as that needed for major surgery, so it’s kept as light as possible. The time the pet is under anesthetic is also kept to an absolute minimum.
Here’s what happens during a typical dental procedure.
- If the dental disease is severe, x-rays of the mouth may be taken before the procedure begins to show how extensive the damage is to the teeth and jawbone. This gives the veterinarian or veterinary technician a roadmap to follow during the procedure.
- The pet is put under general anesthetic, and an endotracheal tube is placed into the pet’s trachea. This tube keeps the pet’s airway open and protects it from any water that is flushed into the mouth during the procedure. It also connects the pet to an anesthetic machine so he or she can receive the right amount of oxygen and gas anesthetic.
- Now the cleanup begins, which is usually done by an experienced veterinary technician. Plaque and tartar are gently and safely removed (both above and below the gumline) with a dental instrument called an ultrasonic scaler. The tip of the scaler vibrates 18,000 times per second, and essentially vibrates tartar off the teeth. It also continuously sprays water to minimize any heat buildup on the tip of the scaler that could damage tooth enamel or irritate the gums.
- Once all the tartar is off the teeth, the veterinary technician probes and measures any pockets in the gums and makes a record of all loose, cracked or broken teeth.
- At this stage, a technique called “root planing” is usually performed, which is using a specialized instrument to scrape off any bacteria remaining under the gumline.
- Some veterinary hospitals then spray the mouth with an antiseptic called chlorhexidine to kill any bacteria that might have survived the cleaning procedure.
During the final stage in the cleaning process, the teeth are polished. Polishing the teeth makes them look whiter, but more importantly, it smooths out any ridges or scratches in the teeth, making it more difficult for future bacteria to stick to them.
- The final step in the dental procedure is to remove any teeth that are rotting, broken, cracked, or have other trauma that necessitates their removal. If left in the mouth, these traumatized teeth will remain extremely painful. Since pets can get along very well with a few missing teeth, extracting these damaged teeth is almost always in the best interest of the pet’s health. Gums around the extracted tooth are sutured closed with a material that dissolves on its own in about 5 to 10 days.
- Once the dental procedure is complete and the pet is awake, he or she is sent home the same day with oral antibiotics, which are usually given for about a week.
Although there are some veterinary specialty dental clinics that offer to replace damaged dog teeth with metal crowns (they can also do fillings and root canals), in our veterinary practice we usually didn’t recommend these procedures. First, they can be very expensive; second, these fixes are usually cosmetic and not necessary for the dog to function. Many also eventually fail at some point in the dog’s lifetime, making extraction of the tooth a more logical option.
Also, a quick word about “anesthesia-free teeth cleaning”. Some facilities offer teeth cleaning without the use of anesthetic, but because the majority of the problem with dental disease occurs below the gumline, it’s impossible to provide proper teeth cleaning and veterinary dental work without anesthesia. Don’t confuse scraping off visible tartar with true veterinary teeth cleaning and dental treatment.
Can Dental Disease In Dogs And Cats Be Prevented?
The answer is an absolute yes! Most dental disease is 100% preventable with some simple things you can do at home to keep the bacteria in your pet’s mouth to a minimum.
Brush, brush, brush! Brushing your dog’s or cat’s teeth is the single most important thing you can do to help ward off dental disease. The ideal time to begin is around 5 months of age, but if your pet is older, have his or her teeth cleaned professionally first, then be diligent about brushing thereafter. Daily brushing is ideal, but 3 to 4 times per week will help reduce plaque levels by up to 90%.
- Use a toothpaste or gel formulated specifically for dogs and cats. Human toothpaste can cause stomach upset if swallowed, and some brands contain xylitol, which is highly toxic to dogs. Also, use a small toothbrush made just for pets – they’re much easier to use in smaller mouths than human toothbrushes. Your veterinarian or veterinary technician can show you the safest and most effective way to brush your pet’s teeth.
- Provide safe chew toys and treats like Bully Sticks or Greenies for your dog (avoid rawhide), which will help scrape the plaque off teeth during chewing. Some dental treats are also treated with enzymes to reduce plaque and tartar formation.
- If your dog or cat is exclusively on a commercial wet (or soft) food diet, consider the possibility of adding hard food to your pet’s overall diet. There are also prescription dry dog foods available that are made up of a fiber matrix designed to scrub teeth like little edible toothbrushes. For more information about the best diet options for your pet, talk with your veterinarian.
- For pets who are particularly prone to tartar buildup, there are dental sprays that can help reduce plaque buildup. Although these won’t work for bacteria beneath the gumline, they can help fight overall bacteria in the mouth – plus they can help freshen your pet’s breath. For recommendations on a safe and effective dental spray for your pet, ask your veterinarian.
- Have regular dental exams done by your vet – at least once a year for younger pets, more often for older ones. Although some pets may not need professional cleaning every year, they still need to be examined as part of their annual checkup to make sure there are no developing dental problems. And remember, professional cleaning is the starting point…afterwards, good oral care done at home can greatly reduce the number of times your pet needs to have future professional cleanings done under anesthetic.
The Good News About Dental Disease
Remember that the tartar you see on your pet’s teeth is only part of what’s going on beneath the gumline. Many people wait too long to address their dog’s or cat’s dental health because they don’t realize the damage and infection that’s already occurring.
However, the good news is that, with a few exceptions, dental disease can almost always be prevented. Proper dental care doesn’t just make our pet’s breath smell better; it’s crucial for their long-term quality of life. Since almost every pet will develop some degree of dental disease in his or her lifetime, by doing something as simple as brushing our pets’ teeth at home and bringing them in for annual dental examinations, we can avoid a long list of potential health problems in our pets.
We don’t always have the luxury of being able to prevent disease in our furry kids, so let’s make the most of this one!
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, and if you click on them and purchase a product, we will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Goodpetparent.com only shares products that we strongly believe in and feel would be beneficial for our readers.
Do you brush your pet’s teeth at home? If so, do you have any tips to share? Please tell us about it in the comments below!