The Importance of Dental Care For Dogs and Cats

By  //  August 13, 2012

Veterinary Medicine

(VIDEO By PetSmart)

BREVARD COUNTY • MELBOURNE, FLORIDA–Dental disease is a common but often overlooked problem in pets.  While cavities represent the most common dental problem in humans, pets are more frequently bothered by tartar buildup on the teeth. 


Dental disease occurs when bacteria, mixed with saliva and food particles, builds up around the teeth forming a film called plaque, causing Gingivitis, inflammation of the gums, which can be very sore and uncomfortable.

Dental tartar is a very dense hard substance, which builds up on the surface of the teeth in most pets.  In the early stages the buildup of material is soft and called plaque, but it later hardens and adheres to the teeth.  This tartar causes inflammation of the gums (gingivitis) and halitosis (bad breath).  If left untreated this inflammation progresses to periodontal disease which results in oral pain, bone loss, and eventual loosening of the teeth.  By 5 years of age 85 percent of pets have significant dental disease.

Contributing factors

One of the main factors determining the amount of tartar buildup is the individual’s chemistry in the mouth.  Some pets need yearly cleanings, while others may only need a few cleanings in their lifetime.  Diet can also play a minor role in the development of tartar accumulation.  Because dry food does not adhere to the teeth like canned food, the tartar buildup does not occur as rapidly.  However, eating dry food does not remove tartar from the teeth.  Once tartar forms, a professional dental cleaning is necessary.

Clinical Signs

Because it is not readily evident to most pet owners, dental disease often progresses to the point at which it is irreversible.  This results in unnecessary pain and frequently tooth loss.  It is important that the veterinarian and pet owner work together to prevent serious dental disease.  Oral pathology can be identified with a routine examination or during investigation of another problem.  Owners may notice halitosis, lethargy, drooling, or difficulty eating. A tooth root abscess can present as an acute facial swelling.  The infection associated with dental disease also has the ability to spread via the bloodstream to infect other organs such as the heart, kidneys, and liver.


We all realise that to keep our pets healthy they need a good diet, water, regular flea and worming treatment, and annual vaccinations. But many pet owners do not realise that dental care is also a very important part of their pet's regular health routine.

Although the diagnosis of dental disease is usually very straightforward, the true extent of the disease often can not be determined until a complete oral exam including radiographs is preformed under anesthesia.  The findings of this type of exam can be a source of frustration for the pet owner who has no way to appreciate the full extent of the disease.  Radiographs and photographs are useful to demonstrate disease to the owners.

Treatment Centers Around Thorough Exam and Cleaning

Proper cleaning of the teeth requires complete cooperation of the patient so that plaque and tartar can be removed properly.  Anesthesia is required to thoroughly clean the teeth both above and below the gum margin.  Many owners have a high degree of anxiety related to general anesthesia with their pets.  In all but the most rare cases the risk of anesthesia is much less than the risk of ignoring the dental disease.

Some things that should be done to minimize anesthetic risk include blood tests to screen for health problems, fluid therapy, antibiotics, monitoring equipment, heating blankets, and only the most modern of anesthetics.  Be sure to question your veterinarian to make sure these things are provided and are standard of care in their practice.

Make sure that the vet managing your pet's dental problems has the most up-to-date anesthesia and radiologic technology, as shown above at the animal Medical Clinic of Melbourne.

The dental prophylaxis procedure begins with scaling the teeth to remove the tartar both above and below the gum line.  This is done with a combination of hand-scaling instruments and ultrasonic cleaning equipment.  The tartar that is under the gum line must be removed for a dental cleaning to be complete.  Each individual tooth is then probed in all quadrants with a periodontal probe.  This instrument is used to measure pocket depths and evaluate for periodontal disease.  This is the point at which any necessary radiographs would be obtained.

Teeth that have greater than 50 percent bone loss would be candidates for immediate extraction.  Cases that have significant, but less than 50 percent bone loss may be a candidate for periodontal surgery.  Although the cleaning procedures are generally preformed by a certified veterinary technician, decisions about extractions should be made by the attending veterinarian.  After all extractions and surgery is preformed the remaining healthy teeth are polished to smooth the surface of the tooth, making it more resistant to plaque accumulation. Many polish materials contain fluoride to reduce teeth sensitivity, strengthen enamel, and decrease plaque formation.


In the early stages of dental disease, problems are often reversible.  Unfortunately the prognosis worsens as the tarter accumulation is left unattended.  Heavy tartar will mechanically push the gum away from the teeth as well as create gingivitis and the accumulation of very destructive bacteria in the area.  This process progresses causing loss of the bone that supports the teeth resulting in loosening and the need for extraction.

Infection in the mouth can also result in tonsillitis and pharyngitis.  Although antibiotics may temporarily suppress the infection, if the tartar is not removed, infection will return quickly.  Infection in the oral cavity may also be picked up by the bloodstream and carried to other vital organs.  It is not unusual to document kidney disease and heart disease that is directly related to oral infection.

Dental disease is one of the most common diseases of dogs and cats. The good news is that dental disease is preventable! Daily brushing, rinsing, or use of dental treats can help remove the plaque buildup.
  1. Seek regular veterinary care and have the teeth cleaned when advised.
  2. Try to maintain home dental care by brushing the teeth.  Special toothbrushes and flavored toothpastes are available.  Brushing efforts should be concentrated on the outside surfaces of the teeth.  The inside surfaces are relatively more difficult to access and fortunately the tendency is for less tartar to form on these surfaces.
  3. A tartar control diet is available in most veterinary clinics.  These diets tend to splint as they are chewed rather than to shatter as normal dry foods do.  This aids in reducing the accumulation of plaque on the teeth.

The good news is the combination of regular veterinary care and good home care should make it unnecessary for our pets to suffer the pain, infection, and tooth loss associated with advanced periodontal disease.  In future articles we will discuss specific conditions that exist in the mouths of dogs and cats.


Dr. Joiner

Dr. Stephen Joiner, a 1984 graduate of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine and a member of the American Veterinary Dental Society, is a co-owner of the Animal Medical Clinic in Melbourne, Florida. Dr. Joiner’s interests include small animal medicine, dentistry and general and orthopedic surgery.