Dental Disease in Cats and Dogs

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Table of Contents:

  1. Common Dental Problems
  2. What Happens If Dental Disease Is Left Untreated?
  3. Preventing Dental Disease


National Pet Dental Health Month may have just ended, but that’s no reason to stop thinking about your pet’s oral care.

Common Dental Problems

Our pet’s teeth are just as susceptible to dental disease as ours are. Here are some common problems for cats and dogs:

Dental Plaque and Tartar

After a meal is consumed, food particles may remain and stick to the teeth and along the gum line. Over time, these leftovers, with the aid of normal mouth bacteria, form a sticky film known as plaque. If plaque is not removed, it mineralizes and forms a hardened substance known as tartar. This harder tartar ‘”scale” cannot be removed with brushing alone and is a stepping-stone to additional issues if not addressed.

A dog suffering from plague and tartar.
A dog with infected teeth and dental pockets necessitating several extractions.

Gingivitis

Gingivitis refers to inflammation of the gingiva or gums. It appears as redness on your pet’s gum line. Note that anywhere that has redness instead of healthy pink (or pigmented) gum is “angry,” inflamed, and painful. Red equals pain and pets are notorious for hiding pain.

Resorptive Lesion

This condition occurs when a pet’s body starts to break down the tissues of a tooth or teeth. While both dogs and cats are susceptible, feline oral resorptive lesions (FORLs) are a common finding in kitty mouths. A resorptive lesion can appear as redness and gum erosion or simply as disintegration of the tissue below the gum line. Ultimately, this can be painful, especially as the sensitive “dentin” tissue below the enamel is destroyed. These lesions can be easily diagnosed with dental imaging. If your pet has been diagnosed with a resorptive lesion, it is important to address it as soon as possible, as further progression can cause infection, severe pain, and bone loss.

Fractures

Fractures, or broken teeth, are fairly common in dogs. They can occur from a traumatic event or from normal activities such as chewing on hard items. A good hardness test is to hit your shin bone with the chew that you are considering for your pet; if it hurts, the chew is too hard. Another good test is to try and press your fingernail into the chew; if it makes an indentation, that is a good sign that the chew is mouth safe. Granted, not every dog that chews on a hard item will get a fracture, but you are greatly increasing chances of fracture with hard items.

Did you know?

One of the most common types of fractures is a slab fracture of the carnassial tooth in dogs, which is the 4th premolar of the upper jaw or 1st molar of the lower jaw. This tooth is special because it has three roots.

Infection

Infection occurs when bacteria make a home along the gum line or within a deep pocket of a tooth. If this bacteria has access to the bloodstream (for example, through bleeding gums), this can lead to potential infection in other sites of the body, like the liver, kidneys, or heart valves.

A dog with a healthy mouth following surgery.
The same dog after oral surgery. They now have a healthy mouth and are eating well.

What Happens If Dental Disease Is Left Untreated?

As is with most medical conditions, the earlier treatment is initiated, the less of a chance for complicated and costly procedures. Dental plaque left untreated leads to tartar formation and increased potential for dental pockets and subsequent infection. A fracture or infected tooth left untreated can not only cause severe pain, but may result in a sinus infection – a serious condition in which an abscess forms in one of the nasal sinuses. Often, the only noticeable evidence of a sinus abscess is swelling just below an eye, which is a condition that requires immediate and emergent attention.

Preventing Dental Disease

Dental Diets

Many companies have formulated dental diets to help with preventive oral care. These specially-formulated diets act to mechanically remove build-up on the surface of the tooth. The very act of chewing scrapes down the teeth. If feeding a dental diet, it should make up at least 25% of your pet’s overall diet.

Tooth Brushing

While dental diets can help with preventive care, bear in mind that pets chew with their back teeth, much like humans. This means that the front teeth are not getting the scraping benefit the molars get through the act of chewing. Adding daily tooth brushing to your pet’s dental routine will ensure no chompers get missed.

Did you know?

A cat has 30 adult teeth and dogs have 42 adult teeth in total.

Tooth Brushing Tips

  • ALWAYS use pet toothpaste (fluoride is toxic)
  • Make it a positive experience
  • Start slowly by first having your pet lick the toothpaste off your finger
  • Incorporate short 5 – 10 second intervals of wiping your finger along the gum line
  • Once your pet is used to this, start utilizing the edge of washcloth on your finger
  • Progress to finger brushing or slowly incorporate a pet toothbrush

Water Additive/Gel

Many products are available over-the-counter that use additives to dissolve plague and prevent it from building up on teeth.

Veterinary Check-ups

Even with proper daily dental care, it is important to have your veterinarian check your pet’s teeth at least annually. At some point, they may recommend a dental cleaning. Understandably, pet parents get nervous about the prospect of a dental cleaning, since pets do not voluntarily keep their mouths open, which usually results in the use of anesthesia. While it may seem scary, it is the safest way to get a thorough cleaning, as well as take dental radiographs to make sure your pet’s teeth are healthy both above and below the gum line.

Remember, dental care should be part of your pet’s daily routine year-round. If you follow these guidelines, you can keep your pet’s smile pearly white for a lifetime. For information on veterinary-approved dental care products, check out the Veterinary Oral Health Care website. It is a great resource for approved dental chews, foods, and other oral care products.

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