How common is dental disease in dogs and cats?
According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, 80% of dogs and 70% of cats begin to show signs of oral disease by age 3. The most common problems are due to periodontal disease, gingivitis and cervical neck lesions, also called oral resorptive lesions. Making sure that your pet’s teeth and gums are healthy can help ensure that your pet stays healthy overall.

What are the clinical signs of dental disease?
There are a number of signs that should alert you to dental disease or other mouth problems in your pet. Your pet may show a decreased interest in food or approach the food bowl and then show a reluctance to eat. It may chew with obvious caution and discomfort, drop food from the mouth, or may swallow with difficulty. Dribbling may be seen, possibly with blood, and there may be a marked unpleasant odor to the breath. In some cases the pets may be seen pawing at their mouths or shaking their heads. A reluctance to eat may lead to weight loss, which can become quite marked. Many pets will refuse dry food and demonstrate a preference for moist or canned foods.

What causes dental disease?
The most common cause of dental disease in pets is due to tartar and calculus accumulation. As in humans, pets accumulate bacterial plaque on the surface of their teeth. If the plaque is not removed quickly, it becomes mineralized to form tartar and calculus. The bacterial products and decaying food stuck to tartar are one potential cause of bad breath.

Tartar is easily identified by its tan or brown color. It normally starts at the gum edge, especially on the back teeth called the premolars and molars. In severe cases, tartar and calculus may cover the entire tooth. The accumulation of tartar and bacteria on the teeth surfaces lead to infection and gingivitis or inflammation of the gums. If the disease is caught at an early stage and a thorough veterinary dental scaling and polishing performed, most of the teeth and gums will have a full recovery. However, if gingivitis is allowed to persist untreated, then irreversible periodontal disease will occur. During this process the bone and ligaments that support the tooth are destroyed leading to excessive tooth mobility and eventual tooth loss. Infection around the socket causes the formation of pus and a foul odor and may spread deep into the tooth socket creating an abscess, or even more severe problems.

Once periodontal disease starts, the degenerative changes to the tooth and its support structures cannot be reversed. These changes also make it easier for more plaque and tartar to collect, resulting in further disease.

Is gingivitis always associated with dental disease?
Some pets develop severe gingivitis with minimal signs of accompanying dental disease. The affected areas may extend beyond the gums to other areas of the mouth, such as the throat or tongue. The cause of this condition is not fully understood but it is likely to be multi-factorial and may differ between individual cases. This condition is often very difficult to control and may require repeated or constant treatment, and its accurate diagnosis can involve extensive investigative procedures.

What are cervical neck lesions?
Cervical neck lesions result from a progressive destruction of the enamel resulting in slowly deepening “holes” in affected teeth. Once the sensitive parts of the tooth are exposed, these lesions are intensely painful, and the only proven available treatment is to extract the tooth. The cause of this disease is unknown; however, poor oral hygiene is suspected to play a role in the disease-process.

What should I do if my pet has signs of dental problems?
If you see that your pet has evidence of tartar accumulation, gingivitis or is exhibiting any signs of mouth pain or discomfort, you should take it to your veterinarian for an examination. You will be advised of the most appropriate course of treatment, which may involve having the pet’s teeth examined and cleaned under short-acting general anesthesia.

The rate of tartar accumulation is very variable between individual pets, and in some cases this may necessitate professional cleaning on a regular basis such as every six to twelve months. Do not try to remove tartar from the teeth yourself using any form of metallic instrument. Aside from potentially harming your pet’s mouth or the pet harming you, you are likely to damage the tooth surface by creating microscopic scratches, which will provide areas for bacteria to cling to and encourage more rapid plaque formation, thus making the problem worse.

What can I do to help prevent dental disease in my pet?
The prime aim to help prevent dental disease is to keep the mouth as hygienic as possible and to reduce the rate at which tartar builds up on the teeth. Regular dental examinations and teeth cleaning (if necessary) by your veterinary professionals is the best prevention. Also, recent advances in nutrition have resulted in diets that reduce tartar accumulation. Your veterinarian can give you specific dietary recommendations that will benefit your pet’s dental health

Tips on keeping your pet’s oral & dental health ship shape.
Bad breath is a bad sign. One thing that people often do not realize is that bad breath is not normal. Dental problems cause eating problems. With severe gum disease, your pet may have a decreased appetite and may display behavioral changes. For example, your pet may have trouble chewing, may chew on one side, or may pick up a piece of food and then drop it. A pet that has eaten dry chow all its life may suddenly want only soft food and may start refusing treats. Pets with gum disease may also paw at its mouth or may rub its head on the ground. Excessive salivation or bleeding may also be observed.

There are prescription dental diets designed to reduce plaque and calculus build-up. These foods maintain their structure when the animal bites into them. The chewing action rubs the food particles roughly across the teeth, removing plaque and calculus with each bite. But diet alone will not prevent all dental problems.

When oral problems develop, get them treated. The best way to stop inflammation of the gums, when it occurs, is a thorough cleaning. Veterinarians and their technical staff can remove the plaque and calculus that is present on the visible portion of each tooth, as well as perform a deep cleaning under the gum line. Since most pets will not allow their mouths to be held open for a thorough cleaning, the procedure usually requires general anesthesia. While the animal is asleep, an instrument called an ultrasonic scaler is used to gently remove plaque and calculus, making the teeth white and shiny again. This procedure is followed by a polishing to smooth irregular surfaces in the tooth enamel that can hold food particles and other debris that can promote gum disease.

Today anesthetics are very safe and it is really much better and safer for the animal to have periodontal disease treated before the problem becomes severe. While the age at which a pet will first need a professional dental cleaning may vary from animal to animal, routine dental care should begin when the animal is young. Good dental health starts at home. Routine brushing of the teeth can reduce the amount of plaque and tartar that build up on the teeth and cause gum disease. It is best to start this type of routine when your pet is young, but even older pets can gradually get used to it if you simply rub a soft cloth across the teeth. After your pet has become accustomed to that, you can start using a finger brush available from your veterinarian. Special toothpastes for animals come in flavors such as chicken and malt flavors.

The best defense against dental disease is prevention. A thorough oral exam should be performed every time your pet receives its yearly vaccinations. Remember, pets age much faster than humans do, so dental problems can develop quickly. One year of an animal’s life is the equivalent of 5 to7 human years. Requesting that a thorough oral exam be performed annually can help ensure that dental problems are recognized before they become serious. February is National Pet Dental Health Month, so contact your veterinarian for an appointment to review your pets dental care needs.