By: Cate Burnette

February is Pet Dental Health Month

Unlike our human family, our four-legged companions can’t brush their teeth and clean their mouths and gums on their own. They rely on us as responsible pet parents to take care of their dental health on a regular basis. Without regular home brushings or annual veterinary cleanings, our animals can suffer from bad breath, broken teeth, infected gums and all the uncomfortable and painful health problems that come from periodontal disease.

Why is Teeth Cleaning Necessary for My Pet?

Veterinary researchers believe that the bacteria that gather around the teeth and gums in your pet’s mouth can travel throughout the bloodstream, causing serious health issues when those microbes reach vital organs.

Additionally, scientists have discovered that achieving and maintaining good dental health can have significant beneficial effects on those animals with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and cardiac disease.

Canine and Feline Gum and Mouth Diseases

Common canine tooth problems include:

Loose Teeth
For your puppy, loose teeth are not an issue. Just like a human baby, a puppy’s first teeth need to loosen and fall out to make room for larger, permanent teeth. In adult dogs, loose teeth are typically an indication of advanced periodontal disease or trauma to the mouth. The bacteria found in periodontal disease can cause gum and bone degeneration that allows the tooth roots to detach from the fibers and periodontal ligaments holding them snugly in place.

Teeth Needing Extraction
Teeth extractions are the most common oral surgery performed on companion animals. As a rule, veterinarians try to salvage as many of your pet’s teeth as possible. However, teeth extractions are required if a tooth is fractured and the root is no longer healthy and viable, if the tooth is loose and no longer attached to the bone, if the teeth are misaligned and crowded, or if a deciduous (baby) tooth is retained in the mouth crowded the permanent tooth.

Misaligned Teeth
Crooked teeth, or a misalignment of the upper and lower jaws, characterize some breeds known for their distinctive bite. If the configuration of the teeth is extreme, however, your dog may have problems chewing or drinking normally. Additionally, crooked teeth sometimes rub against the soft tissues inside your dog’s mouth creating open sores and pain.

Broken Teeth
Broken, or fractured teeth are common in both dogs and cats. Caused by trauma or due to the animal chewing on hard objects, broken teeth can leave the tooth pulp and the root exposed to the bacteria in the mouth, leading to infection. This infection can cause abscesses and bone destruction at the tip of the tooth root. If not treated, the infection can travel through your pet’s bloodstream to other areas in the body and cause substantial functional damage to vital organs.

Teeth Falling Out
The most common reason for a dog’s teeth falling out is periodontal disease. Periodontal disease occurs when food left clinging to your dog’s teeth and gums disrupts the normal bacteria found in your dog’s mouth and it begins to reproduce without regulation. The bacteria congregate in spaces around the gum line causing irritation, inflammation, and bleeding. Once the periodontitis reaches the root of the tooth, bone damage and the loss of the periodontal ligament holding the tooth in place often results in the dog’s teeth falling out of its mouth without veterinary intervention.

Feline tooth problems can include:

Gingivitis/Periodontal Disease
According to veterinary dentists, almost 85% of adult cats have some degree of periodontal disease. Ranging from mild cases of gingivitis, where you’ll see some reddening and inflammation of your cat’s gums at the tooth line, to full-blown periodontal disease that presents with gum abscesses and teeth covered in concrete-like dental tartar, periodontal disease requires veterinary intervention to correct it.

Broken Teeth
Your cat’s broken teeth can leave the root and/or tooth pulp exposed to oral bacteria, leading to infection. This infection can cause abscesses and destruction of the jawbone at the root tip, and, if left untreated, travel through your cat’s bloodstream to major organs, including the heart, kidneys, and liver. The fang teeth are the most commonly affected teeth in cats, along with the molars and premolars.

Retained Baby Teeth
By 2 to 3 months of age, your kitten should be losing her baby, or deciduous, teeth, and the adult teeth should be coming in. This occurs as the body reabsorbs the roots of the baby teeth and the adult teeth take their place. If this progression doesn’t happen, you’ll see what appears to be a double set of teeth. The adult teeth can be pushed out of their natural line leading to a bad bite, or malocclusion.

Dental Procedures for Dogs and Cats

Veterinarians and veterinary technicians are trained to clean your pet’s teeth as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Healthy animals that need the procedure are typically anesthetized; however, older and pets with chronic diseases can be treated without anesthesia in some practices.

At-Home Teeth Cleaning

Most veterinarians recommend brushing your pet’s teeth at home daily to alleviate any dental issues that may arise between veterinary cleanings. You’ll need pet-sized brushes that can be purchased from your vet or at your local pet store. You’ll also want to purchase toothpaste formulated specially for your cat or dog and flavored to make the toothpaste palatable to feline and canine palates. **Please Note: DO NOT use human toothpaste to clean your pet’s mouth. The chemical contained in your toothpaste can be toxic to some animals.

Your veterinarian or veterinary technician can teach you how to brush your pet’s teeth to best clean the teeth. A good tutorial with pictures showing the proper positioning can be found here.

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Cate Burnette is a semi-retired registered veterinary technician with clinical experience in small and large animal medicine. With 30-plus years of journalism experience, she went back to school after 9/11 to work with her first love: animals. The pet parent of four cats, three dogs and one ex-racehorse, Cate is a certified rescue volunteer with the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services and served with the group in New Orleans doing animal search and rescue after Hurricane Katrina. She is also a horse safety and horse management expert, and has volunteered with US Pony Clubs as a district commissioner and horse management judge.

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