Why dental hygiene and oral health are important for pets

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Why dental hygiene and oral health are important for pets - Dog licking a kitten's head in a field of grass

Proper dental care can dramatically improve your pet’s quality of life, as dental disease is one of the most common health issues dogs and cats face. If you have a pet, read on to learn:

  • Why is dental care important for pets?
  • What is dental disease and why is it dangerous?
  • How can I improve my pet’s dental health?
  • Why is anesthesia important for dental cleanings?
  • How do I know if my pet has dental disease?

Untreated dental problems can lead to other serious health issues, oral pain, and a shortened life span. Periodontal disease, for instance, is the most common form of dental disease in dogs and cats, causing bad breath, discolored teeth, and loose teeth. If this condition is ignored, it can eventually lead to poor quality of life. Luckily, these issues can often be treated and even prevented with proper dental care.

Why is pet dental health important?

Poor dental health in pets means more than bad breath or discolored teeth. Dental disease in both dogs and cats can contribute to a number of other health concerns such as:

Poor dental health lowers a pet’s quality of life by making them more susceptible to pain and medical issues as well as potentially shortening their life span.

What is dental disease?

Dental disease is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of problems affecting the mouth, teeth, gums, and tooth support structure. Periodontal disease is the most common type of dental disease in dogs and cats, as well as one of the most frequently seen health issues in veterinary clinics. Periodontal disease is a severe form of gum disease that causes inflammation of the gums and the tooth support structure below the gumline. This inflammation is caused by an immune response to bacteria found in plaque that builds up along the gums on the tooth surface. While it is most commonly caused by poor dental hygiene, other illnesses and genetics also play a role in the development of periodontal disease in cats and dogs.

Feline tooth resorption is also a commonly seen dental problem in cats. The painful condition occurs when the enamel covering a tooth erodes, exposing the sensitive pulp inside. The cause of tooth resorption in cats is unknown and the condition cannot be prevented.

How common is dental disease in pets?

Dental disease, especially periodontal disease, is one of the most common health issues seen in dogs and cats. An estimated 80% of dogs and cats are affected by some form of dental disease before the age of three.

How can I provide my pet with proper dental care?

Pet owners can help their furry family member’s dental health by providing dental care at home and visiting a vet regularly.

Regular toothbrushing

Daily toothbrushing at home is the best way to prevent gum disease. Brushing removes plaque buildup, which prevents gum inflammation, and even brushing two to three times a week can remove plaque before it can harden into tartar. To brush a pet’s teeth, use a pet toothbrush, finger brush, soft human toothbrush, or a damp washcloth. Toothpaste is not necessary, but tasty pet toothpaste can help entice a dog or cat to tolerate or even enjoy daily toothbrushing. Never use human toothpaste as it can cause stomach upset when ingested and may contain xylitol, an artificial sweetener that is toxic to pets.

Some pets, especially cats, may not be tolerant of toothbrushing. Only attempt to brush your pet’s teeth if it is safe to do so. If brushing your pet’s teeth is too stressful and unpleasant for everyone involved, talk to a vet about cleaning their teeth with the help of anesthesia in a clinic. A vet may also provide recommendations for dental diets and treats that may help slow the accumulation of plaque between dental cleanings.

Routine checkups and dental cleanings

Regular dental checkups and professional cleanings both treat and prevent dental disease in dogs and cats. Professional cleanings under anesthesia allow a vet to safely remove visible tartar and plaque from below the gumline, which is an area that cannot be cleaned by brushing at home. In addition, regular dental checkups help catch other dental problems such as fractured teeth and resorptive lesions.

Routine vaccinations and wellness checks also play a role in preventing periodontal disease in cats. Gingivitis can occur due to many infectious or systemic diseases in cats, such as feline leukemia, feline immunodeficiency virus, feline calicivirus, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. Some of these diseases can be prevented with routine vaccinations, while others can be caught and treated before they affect the teeth.

VOHC-approved dental products

Dental care products such as dental chews, treats, and diets can help remove plaque from the teeth or slow its formation. While there are many products on the market, only those approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) have been tested for efficacy and safety. While these products are not replacements for brushing an animal’s teeth, they can help pets that become too stressed by brushing at home. Regular use of VOHC-approved products is also a great way to help the benefits from a professional cleaning last longer. Talk to a vet before giving your pet a new treat, changing their food, or using another type of dental product to improve their dental health.

Does my pet need anesthesia for dental cleanings?

Anesthesia is required for professional cleanings to remain safe and effective, and it allows a veterinarian to closely examine the entire mouth, get accurate X-rays of the tooth roots, remove tartar, and clean under the gumline. In addition, using anesthesia keeps a patient’s stress level low and provides pain management. Dental tools are sharp and can cause injury if your pet is not still during dental procedures. In addition, conscious pets can become confused and stressed, making injury more likely for both them and the veterinary professionals taking care of them.

Is anesthesia safe for my pet?

The risks of using anesthesia during your pet’s dental procedure are low and further minimized with:

  • Preanesthetic blood work, a physical exam, and other needed testing for at-risk animals
  • Close monitoring while under anesthesia and while the patient is waking up
  • IV catheter placement for fluids and medication
  • Other needed care such as warming blankets

“Anesthetic risk is mostly determined by the pet’s health status and the length of the procedure,” explains Dr. Jo Myers, a Vetster veterinarian. “Anesthesia does not become more risky with each procedure. The number of times a pet has had anesthesia in the past does not significantly contribute to the risk.” Shorter, less invasive procedures are less risky than longer dental procedures, making frequent routine dental cleanings safer and more affordable in the long run.

What are the warning signs of poor dental health in pets?

Bad breath is often the first warning sign of dental issues in pets. Brown or yellow discoloration on the teeth caused by tartar buildup is also common. Other signs of dental disease in pets may include:

Behavioral changes can also occur due to oral pain, but are far less common symptoms. Watch for:

Most animals continue to eat normally even with severe dental problems. It’s a common misconception that a pet’s teeth are fine because they are not showing a change in appetite. If your pet has bad breath, discolored teeth, or any other signs of poor dental health, talk to a vet to learn the next steps you can take to improve their dental health.

How is dental disease diagnosed and treated in pets?

Signs of dental disease may be noted in a physical exam, but a thorough oral exam and dental X-rays under anesthesia are needed to determine the full extent of the disease, including its location, type, and severity. A complete diagnosis is typically made during a professional cleaning. Treatments for periodontal disease and other forms of dental disease may include:

  • Tooth extraction
  • Oral surgery
  • Root canal or other dental procedures

Different types of dental diseases require different treatments. Talk to a vet to learn more about how your pet’s dental problems may be treated.

FAQ - Why dental hygiene and oral health are important for pets

How can I improve my dog’s dental health?

Daily brushing and professional dental cleanings are the best ways to improve your dog’s dental health. Before you start brushing for the first time, talk to a vet to check for and treat preexisting gum disease. Brushing the teeth of a dog with untreated, painful gums only causes the animal further pain.

Are professional dental cleanings worth it for pets?

Professional dental cleanings are the only way to remove plaque from below the gumline, humanely extract broken or diseased teeth, and safely remove tartar buildup. Frequent routine cleanings are generally safer and more affordable than treating advanced dental disease, and routine cleaning is also the only way to thoroughly assess your pet’s oral health.

How often should cats go to the dentist?

Your pet’s annual wellness exam is the perfect time to check your cat’s dental health. Your vet can look at your cat’s teeth and recommend next steps, such as professional cleaning. Annual cleaning may be recommended for most cats. However, cats with dental issues or cats who do not tolerate brushing at home may need more frequent cleanings with a veterinarian to keep their mouth healthy and their teeth clean.

Do pets really need dental care?

80% of dogs and cats suffer from dental disease before the age of three. Dental care through daily brushing at home and regular dental checkups are necessary steps for a pet’s health and well-being that prevent and treat dental disease and oral pain.