Pet Dental Care

A tan and white dog with an exaggerated human like dental pattern is holding a green apple in one paw and a blue toothbrush in the other.



Dogs and cats are primarily carnivores.  They eat meat!  Look at their ancestors in the wild.  Coyotes and jaguars do not eat Hills Prescription® dog food.  They hunt and go after their prey.  Domestic animals have been turned into quasi herbivores getting the majority of their protein and other nutrients from cereal grains.  Yes, foods have been fortified with “real meat” mixed in but what a change in a diet over the millennia!


The ancestors of the domestic dog used those sharp incisors (teeth in the front) and those long canines on each side of the upper and lower jaw to shred, tear and pull meat into digestible chunks.  Now a days I have treated many a senior Yorkshire Terrier eating his kibble with not one tooth in his head.  He is happy and everything is right with the world.


Dog and cats have different numbers of teeth in their mouths.  Deciduous teeth are known most commonly as “baby teeth”.  These fall out at specific intervals on average:  adult incisors at 16 weeks of age, adult canines at 6 months of age and adult molars at 8-9 months of age.  Dogs have 28 deciduous teeth while the adult has 42 teeth.  The cat has 26 deciduous teeth and the adult 30.


The loss of deciduous teeth and the growth of adult teeth behind the baby teeth causes the puppy to want to chew on EVERYTHING!  Instead of ruining furniture, it is best to displace that behavior on pigs ears, hard nylon bones and other hard objects that can not be swallowed.




Most dental cleanings are performed on dogs that are about 35 pounds and under.  That means about beagle size.  Cats have dental issues but never as severe as dogs.  What is the determining factor here?  A lot of little dogs are fed canned foods which are rich in fats and sugars.  This type of diet does not remove any plaque or tartar from the teeth compared to hard food.  Hard foods have to be chewed and that action helps to keep plaque and tartar from building up.  Toy breeds are the biggest culprits here.  Many of them do not have any teeth left at age 8 or so.


There probably is a genetic predisposition to the cause of dental disease.  Yorkshire Terriers have perhaps the worst mouth in the business.  Yorkshire Terriers who have just turned a year of age will have plaque and tartar buildup on their teeth.  Rarely have I ever seen a geriatric Yorkshire Terrier with a complete set of teeth!  Chihuahuas and Maltese are close behind on their definitive need of dental cleanings!


Large dogs do get dental disease but it is uncommon.  Most people feed them dry food but it is the lifestyle of the big dog that makes a difference.  Large dogs love to chew sticks, branches and anything that they can get in their mouths.  Labradors love chewing cypress mulch that is laid around the landscape.  They also love chewing on rocks.  This sounds extreme but it does keep the teeth clean!  They do not get away with this behavior as stones can cause tooth fractures and swallowing mulch can can an obstruction or GI upset.


Due to the predisposition of dental disease in small dogs, I recommend dentals be performed on these animals twice a year.  Once a year is just not enough.




Many people think that teeth are the only thing that exists in the mouth.  A complete oral exam also includes looking at the gums, the mouth and the tongue.  I have diagnosed tumors way back on the tongue just by performing a good oral exam.  The lymph nodes that drain the head (mandibular) are also checked for any change in size or consistency on palpation.


I have mentioned to clients over the years that good oral health equals good heart health.  In dogs with severe dental disease, there are a multitude of bacteria causing infections in the mouth and teeth.  Bacteria are absorbed into the general circulation and make plaque deposits on the heart valves.  This can cause or exacerbate heart disease as the animal ages.  Dental health does help protect other organs!



So when does your dog or cat need a dental?  Outside of Yorkshire Terriers and other toy breeds, most dogs and cats are going to need to have their teeth cleaned around 2-3 years of age.  Factors such as diet and whether fed dry or wet food will influence the start time of requiring dental cleanings.  The interval between cleanings will be determined by the veterinarian.  What I usually did was look at the date the first dental was done.  When the pet is on the exam room table for vaccines or other issues I will check for plaque and tartar buildup and from THAT I can usually determine whether the pet requires annual or semi-annual dental cleanings.  In dog and cats, plaque and tartar buildup always starts first on the upper canine and molar teeth.


If a dog or cat has never had a dental cleaning, the first sign of danger that owners usually complain about is that “horrible breath”.  Severe halitosis is indeed one of the main reasons why pets are taken to a veterinary hospital.  Along with the odor problem, pets with advanced dental disease will have tremendous amount of plaque and tartar buildup and in severe cases the tooth can not be seen as it is basically covered in calculus (stone)!  Dogs and cats may also have what is called a gingival lineThis is an early indication of gum and or periodontal disease. In early cases there is a dark red line of inflammation about 2 mm in thickness above the tooth line around the oral cavity. This can be painful but relieved with frequent oral hygiene..  In cats, this could also indicate not only inflammation but a secondary problem associated with FIV.Feline Immunodeficiency Virus is similar but different from Feline Leukemia, even though they are in the same viral family (retrovirus). This disease is most commonly seen in unneutered male tom cats that are allowed to roam. Transmission is most commonly by deep bite wounds from cat to cat. Signs of immune deficiency are noted over time but it is associated also with severe dental and oral lesions in the cat. Indoor cats rarely get this. It is also, like Feline Leukemia, NOT transmissible to humans. Treatment is symptomatic as there is no effective cure. Cats can live a normal life if kept indoors. .


Owners also report that trying to open a dog or cats mouth is difficult and or painful.  People love to stroke their pets.  It provides pleasure to not only the human but also to the animal.  In doing so, stroking the ears elicits pain.  This could be an ear infection but also a dental condition.  This is known as referred painEven though pain is felt in a certain part of the body, other parts of the body will feel pain in sympathy with the former. In this case a sore mouth hurts. That pain is transmitted elsewhere in the body; usually to the ears. The same thing happens with a dog or cat in lumbar (lower back) pain. Even though the injury and pain are in the spine, just touching an animals abdomen will cause intense pain. .


Like people, dogs and cats will be seen chewing food on one side of the mouth or the other since one side hurts to chew on.  I have had to tell people over and over that pets feel pain as much as we do and often react the same way.




Most dentals and extractions in dogs and cats are performed under general anesthesia.  The procedure is outpatient; meaning the animal is fasted after midnight and brought into the clinic early in the morning.  Blood work is drawn to check organ function and the dental procedure is done.  Each tooth is checked for individual integrity.  If an extraction is needed, it is performed at the same time.  Retained baby canine teeth are a problem and, if present, are also extracted. The pet is usually sent home with an oral chlorhexidine rinse and an antibiotic for bacterial control.  My favorite antibiotics for this purpose are Clindamycin and Clavamox®.  The pet is than sent home late afternoon with its medical supplies.




An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  So true with post operative dental care.  If the pet has been eating only canned food, it is appropriate to eventually get the animal used to eating dry food.  Dogs and cats can not brush their teeth so people have to do it!  Some pets tolerate the procedure while others will fight you.  Virbac® makes some of the best dental prophylactics on the market.  Check out the Virbac® link above and also while there, watch a video on how to brush a dog’s teeth.  Owners can use toothpaste specially formulated for canine and feline teeth or in a pinch they can use baking soda and water or hydrogen peroxide to do the job.  Both are excellent oxygenatingA tremendous amount of bacteria in the mouth do not need oxygen to reproduce. These are called anaerobes. One way to kill them is to introduce agents that are rich in oxygen; denying them of their ideal environment to reproduce. products.


People can gargle, pets can not.  One of the best products to use daily are those containing chlorhexidine, an excellent antibacterial used for dental and skin conditions.  Virbac® supplies a bottle with a long curved applicator tube.  Just squirt along the gums of the teeth and you are done.  Also sold are hard chews that are impregnated with oxygenating compounds.  The hard chew also slows down the buildup of plaque and tartar.


Maintaining a dogs or cats dental health is not difficult.  Veterinarians are trained to recognize dental disorders and offer treatment plans that will keep your pets oral cavity healthy.  Maybe, even improve that special Pepsodent® smile!

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