Why your pet’s dental health is more than just clean teeth

Why your pet’s dental health is more than just clean teeth

Read this article to learn more about periodontal disease, how it’s diagnosed and how you can care for your pet’s teeth and visit the vet to prevent it.

There are hundreds of pet dental cleaning products on the market, but dental disease is still one of the most common problems that veterinarians see every year. Around 80% of dogs and up to 70% of cats will develop some form of dental disease before the age of two years old. The means to keep pets’ teeth clean are readily available, but pets are still developing gum disease (gingivitis) and bacteria-inflicted damage to their teeth and bone (periodontitis). However, daily toothbrushing and annual vet visits can radically reduce the incidents of dental disease in pets.

The purpose of this article is to highlight the causes of periodontal disease in cats and dogs, the symptoms to look out for, how we diagnose dental problems and how they can be treated. We look at the ways in which pets’ dental disease goes beyond their oral health environment, and what you can do to improve your pets’ dental and physical wellbeing.

What causes periodontal disease in dogs and cats?

If oral bacteria are not removed from the teeth and mouth after eating (e.g. by brushing the teeth), it finds its way into the warm, wet, acidic parts of the mouth and sticks there. If it’s not brushed away, dental plaque forms and then hardens into tartar – the hard, yellow-brown substance you can see on animals’ teeth. When tartar forms on and below the gumline, it irritates the gums and causes inflammation (gingivitis), which will progress to periodontal disease if nothing is done about it.

Periodontal pockets form below the gumline, where food debris and oral bacteria is trapped, escalating the risk of infection. These periodontal pockets are a sure indication of the progression of periodontal disease to the point where bone loss and tissue damage around the teeth have also occurred. The risk at this point is for bacteria to penetrate the teeth roots and surrounding jaw bone, which can result in further bone loss. If the bacteria get into the bloodstream, it can have a systemic impact – affecting major organs like the heart, kidneys and liver.

Periodontal disease can ultimately shorten pets’ lives by causing heart problems like endocarditis (inflammation in the heart), and inflammation in the liver and kidneys, which severely impacts their ability to function.

Symptoms of periodontal disease in dogs and cats

Different pets will show varying degrees of the different symptoms, but generally, periodontal disease can manifest as:

  • bad breath (halitosis)
  • gum inflammation (gingivitis)
  • visible tartar on the teeth
  • bleeding gums/blood in the saliva
  • receding gums, which indicate a loss of supportive structure around the teeth
  • loose teeth/tooth loss
  • reluctance to engage with chew toys
  • excessive salivation
  • reluctance to chew kibble/painful eating
  • preferring softer foods
  • lack of appetite
  • unable to tolerate teeth being brushed
  • pawing at the face/mouth

It will be very difficult to spot behaviour that is indicative of the dog or cat being in pain – firstly, because different pets show pain in different ways; and secondly, because most pets have a survival tendency to hide their pain. In nature, showing pain can make the animal a target for predators, or be rejected by the pack as the weakest link. Consequently, by the time your pet does show signs of being in pain, the disease will have progressed significantly. Rather take your pet to the vet sooner than later.

How is dental disease diagnosed in dogs and cats?

Some symptoms of pet dental disease are evident from the outside, but it will take a veterinary examination – preferably under anaesthetic – to conclusively diagnose periodontal disease. When the dog or cat is under anaesthetic, the vet can examine each tooth individually, get below the gumline to clean up inside the periodontal pockets and determine the true extent of the disease.

If the vet suspects that the periodontal disease has progressed to affect the pet systemically, they will perform blood tests, imaging and other screening tests to determine what effect it may be having on the pet’s heart, liver and kidneys. Getting the full picture will determine the necessary treatment required to ensure the pet’s health and wellbeing.

How is dental disease in pets treated?

When the vet puts a dog or cat under anaesthetic to diagnose periodontal disease, the same procedure is used to undertake the treatment of the condition. This is done because it’s only during the examination below the gumline that the vet can assess the real progression of the disease. They will also perform dental scaling (which is a technique used to remove the hard tartar build-up on the teeth) and use the opportunity to clean out the periodontal pockets. Loose, damaged teeth, and those affected by bone loss around the teeth will be extracted if necessary.

Post-operative management of periodontal disease will include medication for pain and inflammation as well as antibiotics to treat infection. The vet will also recommend ways to care for your pet’s dental health and to prevent a recurrence of dental and gum issues.

Prevention of periodontal disease in dogs and cats

Dental care does not only consist of toothbrushing – it’s a holistic approach to your pet’s health that includes their teeth:

Make sure your pet gets good quality nutrition

Your pet’s health starts with a high-quality pet food that is scientifically formulated to meet their nutritional needs.  This will give them strong bones (and teeth), and will support a healthy immune system, which is necessary to fight off bad bacteria. But you can’t rely on your pet’s immunity without a good dental health regimen like daily brushing. Small breed dogs and some purebred cats are more susceptible to dental disease because of their crowded dentition, so they will need a specialised dental diet. The dental diet gives them the right balance of proteins and minerals for a strong immune system, and specially designed dry kibble that helps to keep their teeth clean.

Give your pet’s teeth a daily clean

Gingivitis can very quickly progress to periodontal disease, so don’t even give it the chance. To prevent any dental issues, your dog or cat needs to start a daily dental routine as quickly as possible (if they haven’t already). Your puppy or kitten should be more familiar with toothbrushing and dental products than they are with their toys and treats! As soon as their permanent teeth have erupted, it’s time to get them into a daily brushing habit. They might resist at first, but using positive reinforcement techniques like treats and praise can quickly get them used to (and even enjoy) having their teeth brushed.

Toothbrushing is one of the most effective ways to keep periodontal disease at bay, but there are also other dental products that can help keep their teeth clean and bacteria-free. Water additives, topical tooth gels, and dental sprays will keep your pet’s breath fresh and repel oral bacteria from sticking to teeth. Ask the vet to recommend the most appropriate dental health products for your pet’s unique needs.

Treat your pets with dental treats & toys

You can go the extra mile for your dog or cat’s teeth by giving them dental treats to help keep their teeth clean, as well as let them play with dental toys. These are gentle on teeth, but are abrasive to bacterial plaques, and help to remove them from pets’ teeth. But don’t rely on these alone – it’s been proved (in a 2019 clinical trial) that toothbrushing is three times more effective in keeping teeth clean than combining a dental diet and dental chews. Pet owners need to be proactive about keeping their pets’ teeth clean.

Visit the vet every year to check on your pet’s teeth

Given the significant repercussions of periodontal disease, it is critical that every pet has an annual dental check-up. It’s vital for your pet’s health that the vet has the opportunity to examine their teeth and to descale and polish them (under anaesthetic) if necessary, to remove dental tartar.

Preventative pet care is far more effective than curative treatments. Don’t let your pets suffer the symptoms of periodontal disease before doing something about their dental health. If you need advice and guidance regarding your dog or cat’s teeth, arrange a veterinary appointment and let us examine your pet and make an informed recommendation based on their individual dental needs.