Pets may not care about their cosmetic tooth appearance the way people do, but teeth are important to them in other ways. Your pet uses their teeth to eat, communicate, recreationally chew, and groom themselves. More importantly, poor dental health can negatively impact your pet’s overall health and quality of life, so keeping their teeth in tip-top shape is key to their wellness. 

February may be National Pet Dental Health Month, but our team at MetroPet Veterinary Clinic believes dental health should be a priority year-round. If you’re not sure where to start, our guide to your pet’s dental health will help you understand how dental problems occur in pets, why treating them is important, and how to maintain your pet’s oral health. 

What is dental disease in pets, and why does it matter?

Dental disease—also called periodontal disease—is caused by plaque and bacteria buildup on your pet’s teeth. After a few days, plaque hardens into tartar, which accumulates over time, and erodes the gum attachments, bones, and ligaments around the teeth. Bacteria invade these areas, and may cause infections of the gums, tooth roots, or jaw bones. This can progress at varying speeds, but ultimately always results in pain, bad breath, and tooth loss. Dental disease affects almost all pets, with most showing signs by age 3, and disease will progress if left untreated.

If you’ve ever had a toothache, you know how badly dental problems can hurt. Dental pain can decrease your pet’s quality of life and make eating, chewing, or playing more difficult. Bacteria from dental infections can also spread through the bloodstream, and cause permanent damage and dysfunction of the kidneys, liver, and heart. 

How do I know if my pet has dental disease?

Some pets will show that they have a problem, but others are good at hiding pain. In the early disease stages, your pet may have no noticeable signs. For this reason, we recommend that we examine your pet’s mouth at least once yearly, with their annual wellness visit. If your pet does show disease signs, they may include:

  • Drooling
  • Dropping food or chewing on one side
  • Red, swollen, or bleeding gums
  • Bad breath
  • Lack of interest in chewing, or favorite toys
  • Facial swelling
  • Pawing at the mouth

Can my pet’s dental disease be treated?

Thankfully, dental disease is treatable in pets. To treat existing dental disease, your veterinarian will perform a professional dental cleaning with your pet under general anesthesia, to clean the teeth, remove diseased teeth, and start your pet with a “clean slate.” During a professional dental cleaning, the following steps take place:

  • X-rays — Digital X-rays allow your veterinarian to see the entire tooth root to look for abscesses, bone loss, unerupted teeth, cysts, and fractures.
  • Scaling — Hand instruments and an ultrasonic scaler remove plaque and tartar to get your pet’s teeth sparkling clean.
  • Polishing — A round, spinning cup, and abrasive polish buff away roughness to smooth the tooth surface.
  • Complete oral exam — Your veterinarian will examine each tooth, check gum attachment depths, and look for other abnormalities like fractures, cavities, wear, infections, and loose teeth. They’ll also perform an oral cancer screening and take samples of anything suspicious—for example, melanoma has been known to occur in the mouth.
  • Extractions — Diseased teeth are removed and the incisions sutured closed.

How can I be proactive with my pet’s dental health?

While dental disease is treatable, prevention is a better strategy. To do this, you’ll need to implement an oral home care regimen, similar to your own oral home care. Daily toothbrushing should anchor your home care routine, but if that is not feasible, a few times weekly is also effective. If your pet will not accept toothbrushing, many other products, including special diets, treats, chews, water additives, wipes, and gels, that reduce plaque buildup are available. The Veterinary Oral Health Council maintains a list of accepted products that have been proven safe and effective, and your veterinarian can recommend the best product for your pet.

Home care that includes toothbrushing and oral care products will help to extend the time between dental cleanings, but all pets will still periodically require professional veterinary care. The rate at which each pet requires a professional cleaning will vary depending on size, breed, and individual genetics. Visit your veterinarian for a dental exam at least once per year, to ensure your pet’s oral health is well-managed. 

Your pet’s dental health is important, so join us in celebrating National Pet Dental Health Month by making your pet’s dental health a priority. Call us to schedule a dental consultation and professional dental cleaning with your MetroPet Veterinary Clinic team, or with any questions related to your pet’s oral health.