Veterinary Dental Care: What you NEED to know about you pets teeth!

Just imagine the condition of your teeth and gums if for your entire life you never brushed or flossed.  Unfortunately this is the case for many of our pets.  The terms “dog or cat breath” are often used to describe the odor in our pet’s mouth.  Many owners think this is normal, however this is actually a sign of dental disease.  Up to 85% of all pets have some form of dental disease by the age of 3.


So just what does dental disease mean in our pet?

First it is important to know some important terms to better understand what is happening in your pet’s mouth.  Plaque is a sticky film containing bacteria that coats the teeth.  This film is invisible and starts forming hours after brushing.  If the plaque is not removed, it mineralizes and becomes tartar.  This tartar covers the tooth and creates inflammation of the tissue around the tooth.  This is called gingivitis.

Normal Dog mouth with no tartar or tooth fracture


If left unchecked, this gingivitis progresses even further.  The bacteria continue to invade the deeper tissues of the mouth and the periodontal ligament.  This ligament is responsible for anchoring the tooth to the jaw bone.  Once this ligament is affected, the bacteria continue to wreak havoc and begin destroying bone.  This results in the loss of the affected tooth and worse yet, can cause fractures in the jaw bone if it becomes severe.  Gingivitis is a process that is reversible; however once there is periodontal disease and bone loss…this cannot be undone.

Mouth with severe gingivitis and periodontal disease

Dental disease is painful to your pet and also can affect the bond that you have with your pet due to the foul smell that is a result of dental disease.  They can develop severe abscesses and  their ability to eat can often be impaired.  In addition to that, the bacteria that is in the mouth can circulate to other parts of the body, mainly the heart values and kidneys and this can result in disease and organ failure.  All due to dental disease.

What can be done to treat dental disease?

Once gingivitis and periodontal disease are present, a professional cleaning and evaluation is needed.  A professional cleaning must be done under general anesthesia because we are addressing disease under the gum line.  This can be uncomfortable so anesthesia is necessary for your pet.  A professional cleaning includes multiple aspects of care and is not just cosmetically removing the tartar. Cleanings should be performed every 6-12 months or as determined by your veterinarian.

  1. Gross tartar is removed with specific instruments, then an ultrasonic scaler is used to remove smaller areas of tartar, as well as clean the periodontal spaces under the gum line, where most problems occur.
  2. Full mouth radiographs are performed to assess for any fractured teeth, tooth root abscesses, and bone loss. All of the teeth are charted so that the medical record contains information about the affected teeth.

     Normal radiographs from a bottom left mandible

Normal radiographs from a bottom left mandible

Radiographs showing severe bone loss2

Radiographs showing severe bone loss and a jaw fracture from dental disease (bottom right mandible of a dog)

  1. Once identified, these diseased teeth are treated, either by extraction, application of antibiotic gels, and/or sealants.
  2. All of the teeth are polished to remove any unevenness from the tartar removal and an oral fluoride treatment is applied.


Before and after cleaning and post tooth extractions

Before and after cleaning and post tooth extractions

Before and after cleaning and post tooth extractions


The most important thing that you can do for your pets is to prevent dental disease before it occurs.

Professional cleaning is not enough to keep dental disease at bay.  Only 48 hours after a professional cleaning, plaque begins to develop on the tooth’s surface again. Unless we are also implementing preventative care as well, the tooth disease will progress.

There are multiple things that you can do for your pet at home to prevent dental disease.  It is best to incorporate at least two of the following things into your everyday routine to have the best chance of preventing further disease and possible extractions.

  1. Brushing

Ideally pet’s should have their teeth brushed every day. There are multiple options of sizes and textures of animal toothbrushes to fit the needs of your particular pet. Human toothpaste must never be used as they will swallow it.  Only use animal tooth pastes as they are safe to be swallowed.

You can use the toothbrush first without toothpaste to get them used to the sensation.  You do not have to brush the inner surface of their teeth, but focus on the teeth further in the back of the mouth as this tends to build up the most tartar.

  1. Dental Chews

Chewing is a lower maintenance option and can greatly reduce the amount of plaque on your pet’s teeth. Chews should be used daily, and the appropriate size chew for your pet should be selected. Pets should also be supervised during chewing to prevent any choking.  It is recommended that you choose a produce that contain additional ingredients that prevent mineralization of plaque.  It is not recommended to use cow hooves, deer antlers or other manufactured chews that are too hard as these can easily result in fractured teeth.

Open Fractured tooth left 4th premolar, called a “slab” fracture

  1. Dental diets

Dental diets are specially formulated to help reduce plaque.  Regular crunchy kibble alone is not an effective method of plaque reduction.  The size and texture of dental diets are specially made so that animals must chew them and they do not break apart easily, but rather stick to the surface of the tooth and basically scrubbing the plaque away

  1. Dental wipes, rinses and Pads

These are best used if your pet does not tolerate brushing.  These products wipe away plaque deposits from the surface of the tooth.


When considering any dental product, I recommend that you visit the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s website This council evaluates the efficacy of the dental products and if they pass their evaluations, are rewarded the VOHC seal of approval

Remember preventing dental disease is the easier way for your pet to live a long life not plagued with bad breath, painful teeth and infection.  Have your veterinarian examine your pet’s teeth every 6-12 months and schedule cleanings when recommended to decrease the likelihood of extractions.  Prevention of dental disease also decreases the financial aspect of paying for multiple extractions and decreases anesthesia time for their cleaning.

If you have any questions regarding the oral health of your pet, please contact your veterinarian.

I am always available for questions or concerns

Alisha Spivey

University Veterinary Hospital