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Dental Hygiene and Diseases in Dogs and Cats

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Lindsay Butzer, DVM
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Dr. Lindsay Butzer
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Dental Hygeine and Diseases

Why is dental care important for my pet?
Although veterinarians explain the importance of brushing, 65% of pet owners do not brush their pet's teeth. You can be in the group of pet owners who protects their pets' teeth by investing just 2 minutes a day in brushing. Your pet will be healthier and you will enjoy their fresher breath. Below are a list of common questions pet owners ask about dental diseases in both dogs and cats.


Dental disease is painful for pets just as it is for people; however, pets are often better at hiding their pain than people are. When a pet receives dental therapy, the family usually notices the pet is much more playful, indicating the degree of discomfort the pet had been experiencing.




Each time your pet visits the clinic, the veterinarian should check your pet's mouth. At minimum, your pet should have their mouth thoroughly examined at least once a year. After your pet reaches 7 years old, they should be examined twice a year. An older pet's heart, kidneys and liver are more sensitive to the effects of the bacteria that cause dental disease.



Perhaps. The visible crown of the tooth is not the most important area for dental disease—the important area is just under the edge of the gum, or the gingival margin where it is difficult for you to see without using dental tools. This area, as well as the crown, is assessed by the veterinary dentist.



Bad breath, or halitosis, is caused by bacteria in the mouth. The highest concentration of bacteria, and the biggest problem, is beneath the gum line. In addition, bacteria are present on teeth; and, if there is bleeding from the gums, a thick layer of bacteria mingles with the blood. Bad breath is a symptom of dental disease. Fix bad breath by fixing the teeth and gums.



For the past few hundred years we have bred some dogs to be smaller in size. The genes that control body size have been easier to influence than the genes that influence tooth size. Thus, we have small-bred dogs whose mouths are full of teeth that remain genetically suited to a somewhat larger dog.



Yes. Dental (periodontal) disease is common in Maine Coon, Ragdoll, and Oriental breeds. These cats often have dental disease that is more severe or progresses more rapidly than in other breeds.



By 3 years of age, 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have oral disease. Periodontal disease is the most common infectious disease of pets. Fortunately, much of it is preventable with brushing.



It might. Dental disease is caused by the type of bacteria in your pet's mouth. Some pets never develop dental disease regardless of oral care. Other pets develop dental disease despite exceptional care. All pets benefit from having their teeth brushed.



Human teeth are positioned more closely and have more molar contact surfaces than pet molars have. The contact areas benefit the most from flossing. You can reach 90% of the surface of a dog's teeth just by brushing; flossing is not essential.



A thin layer of food particles, dead cells and proteins from saliva form plaque on the teeth and gums. The plaque layer begins forming within 20 minutes of being brushed. Plaque thickens and hardens becoming a calculus unless it is removed by brushing.



Yes. The bacteria in plaque is linked to heart disease, heart attack, and cardiac arrhythmia.



Yes. Pets can develop serious, even life-threatening, illness due to the bacteria in their mouths when they have dental disease. Among the organs damaged by these oral bacteria are the kidneys, lungs, and bladder.



Pets in the most danger from dental disease are:


Gingiva are gums, and gingivitis is inflammation of the gums. Gingivitis is caused by bacteria, especially the bacteria between the tooth and the gum, an area called the gingival pocket. With gingivitis, the gum edge reddens, swells, and is no longer flat and snug against the tooth. Bacteria nestle into this space creating plaque and eventual decay.



Deciduous, or baby, teeth begin to erupt when your pet is a few weeks old. They are temporary and will be replaced by permanent teeth.



The deciduous, or baby, teeth are pushed out by erupting permanent teeth. If the deciduous tooth doesn't give way, or is retained, the permanent teeth can't erupt in the correct place. Instead, the permanent teeth push into the roof of the mouth, or toward the lips. Retained deciduous teeth should be removed.



A prophy is preventative, or prophylactic, care that removes plaque and calculus before irreparable dental disease occurs. A prophy doesn't prevent plaque build up, but removes plaque before it causes disease. Periodontal therapy deals with diseased teeth and gums, including cavities. It is more economic, safer, and less painful for your pet to have a prophy than to have periodontal therapy.



Peri (around) the dontal (tooth) is the tissue that holds the tooth in its bony socket. If you've seen a jaw bone (mandible) or the upper bone that holds teeth (maxilla), you noticed sockets in the bone. Teeth are held in these sockets by ligaments and cementum. When dental disease affects tooth ligaments and cementum, the tooth loosens and falls out.



Perhaps. With a prophy, or prophylactic treatment, the pet does not normally experience pain during, or after, the procedure. With periodontal therapy, pain may occur during the treatment and after. Pets are anesthetized to control pain and to make it easy to work without being bitten. Anesthetized pets are also given analgesic injections into the gums to control pain. Your pet may be prescribed an analgesic to take home.



An adult dog has 42 teeth; a cat, 30.



Yes. Meat contains a high concentration of phosphorus. In order to balance a high intake of phosphorus, the body pulls calcium from the teeth and tooth roots, weakening the teeth. To prevent this, don't feed strictly organ or muscle meat to your pet. Instead, feed oxtails or large knucklebones, which provide calcium with the meat.



Yes. The teeth of larger breed dogs come in earlier than the teeth of smaller breed dogs.



Puppies and kittens are born with longer or "overshot" upper jaws (brachygnathism) than lower jaws. This makes it easier to nurse. As puppies and kittens age, the lower jaw (mandible) catches up to the upper jaw (maxilla). A normal adult pet mouth has jaws of equal size so that upper and lower front teeth meet in a scissors bite.



  • Your pet will have sweeter breath because brushing removes bacteria that cause odor.
  • Your pet will be happier because their mouth will be healthier. A healthy mouth affects the entire body.
  • You'll save money because your veterinary dental visits can be spaced further apart.
  • You'll save money on medications because a healthy pet requires less medication.


  • Bad breath
  • Drooling
  • Pawing the mouth
  • Change in eating habits
  • Not allowing face or mouth to be touched
  • Swelling on cheeks or below eyes
  • Draining face wound
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Weight loss


Dogs' teeth only touch in one or two places (unlike your teeth), and their teeth are narrow, not broad like yours. People need to floss to get between teeth and under the gums. But for your pet, regular toothbrushing reaches 90% of the surfaces that need to be cleaned.



Many pet food manufacturers produce a line of dental care food. Although company research may show the food reduces tartar and plaque, they are referring to problems above the gum line. Kibble cannot help the area below the gum line, and that's where most dental problems originate. The same is true of dog biscuits such as Milk-Bone; biscuits don't reach below the gum line to the problem area.



Yes. For many cats eating moist cat food causes fewer dental problems than eating hard kibble. Chewing kibble creates a special force, the abfraction force, that rocks the tooth and the rocking wears away tooth roots. This tooth injury is so common it has several names: resorptive lesion (RL), feline odontoclastic resorptive lesion (FORL), cervical line lesion, and feline “neck” lesion. In addition to helping the teeth, moist food offers cats other benefits: fewer kidney and bladder stones and crystals.