Dental Care for Pets: Building Blocks for Health

Renee DiPietro, LVT
Veterinary Information Specialist
Pet Poison Helpline®


Why is it important to support our pet’s dental health? As in human healthcare, a healthy mouth has a strong link to overall wellness. Dogs, cats, and many other companion and farm animals can have dental issues arise if they are not provided with dental care from an early age. Dental issues can lead to pain, infection, lack of appetite and serious systemic disease.

How can we as pet owners help?

Forming a practice of preventative daily dental/oral care is a solid building block for a healthy mouth.   Brushing your pet’s teeth daily, or even a few times a week can be a valuable wellness measure to help support dental health over a lifetime. There are numerous ways to “brush” your pet’s teeth including the simple action of using medical gauze to wipe off plaque. Veterinary clinics and pet retailers sell a plethora of tooth cleaning products such as finger brushes and dental toys. Accessory products such as pastes and gels are also abundant.

Puppies and Kittens will have their deciduous (baby teeth) by 6 to 8 weeks. These baby teeth will be replaced by permanent teeth by about 6 months of age. Even though the deciduous teeth are lost early in your pet’s life, developing an oral health practice when they are very young will prove to be invaluable later.

Providing oral health for your pet also allows you to become familiar with the particular topography of each pet’s mouth. This familiarity may help you to spot emerging problems in the mouth and especially regarding the teeth and gums. The earlier a developing problem is noticed, the easier it may be for the veterinarian to provide successful treatment.

Pets can begin to show signs of dental disease as early as 2-3 years of age. Halitosis (bad breath) can be an indication of a problem, but lack of this condition does not necessarily mean that the mouth is completely healthy.

Lack of appetite, drooling, and pawing at the mouth are other clinical signs that may indicate dental disease or other oral problems. It is also possible for there to be significant dental disease present without obvious associated clinical signs.

Plaque forms when a film of bacteria covers the teeth. The plaque quickly begins to harden, becoming the visible calculus. The bacteria in the plaque/calculus cause inflammation in the gingiva (gums). This all sets the stage for progressive dental disease. The more often the bacterial film can be removed by the mechanical act of brushing or by other at home oral care modalities, the longer it will take for dental disease to set in.

Dental Disease can lead to a variety of other serious health problems including Kidney Disease and Heart Disease that can become life threatening.

In addition to hands on cleaning there are a number of products such as water additives, healthy treats, toys, and chews that can help to keep your pets teeth clean by either preventing the build- up of calculus on the teeth or by mechanically removing some of the plaque and calculus via the action of chewing.

For dogs, even feeding a healthy snack daily can be helpful. My dogs get raw carrots as treats every day. They love them and the mechanical action of chewing them helps to remove new plaque.

While at home oral/dental care for your pet will help to slow down the dental disease process, it will still be important for your pet to have regular (annual) oral exams by your veterinarian. Professional cleanings are also an important part of pet dental care, as they are in human dentistry.

Some pets will require annual dental cleanings, while others may need them less often.

During a cleaning, a veterinarian, or more commonly a veterinary technician will:

  • Remove excess tartar/calculus
  • Take radiographs
  • Ultrasonically scale the teeth and clean below the gingival (gum) line.
  • Probe periodontal pockets and chart the teeth on a dental record
  • Polish the teeth
  • Apply sealant to the teeth if requested by the owner or recommended by the DVM.

If any problems areas are noted the veterinarian may extract teeth, or perform endodontic or periodontal procedures.

Full dental cleanings and radiographs are performed under a general anesthetic to eliminate pain and stress for the patient and to ensure the safety of your pet, the veterinarian, and technician. General Anesthesia also allows the technician and DVM to do the most thorough job possible.

Many owners are concerned about general anesthesia. In most practices the veterinary professionals who perform anesthesia are highly trained and pets are monitored closely. If you have concerns talk with your veterinary practice. Ask them to explain the type of pre-anesthetic testing, anesthesia protocol , and monitoring they will use for your pet. More information can help you feel more comfortable. In most cases, it is much more risky for your pet if you allow dental disease to progress than to have your pet anesthetized for dental care.

Visit this link to see a comprehensive description (with pictures) of a feline dental cleaning process.

When selecting a veterinarian it is important to select an individual that has had significant training and experience in dental procedures.

Anesthesia Free Dental Cleaning:

Pet owners often ask about Anesthesia Free Dental Cleaning.

This practice is not recommended as the scope of therapy is limited and the risk of injury to the pet high.

The American Veterinary Dental College, whose membership is comprised of veterinary dental specialists, are against the practice of anesthesia free dentistry stating “removal of dental tartar on the visible surfaces of the teeth has little effect on pet’s health, and provides a false sense of accomplishment. The effect is purely cosmetic.” ​

In summary, your proactive approach to dental/oral health home care and professional veterinary dental care can go a long way to support and improve the overall health of your companion. Just a few minutes a day can provide a significant leg up to dental health.

Let’s keep those chompers clean and strong!!