Your Pet & Their Dental Health

Have you noticed that your furry friend has more than just a little morning breath lately? Bad breath is not only unpleasant, but it can also be a major clue that your pet has dental disease.

Did you know that periodontal disease is the #1 diagnosed problem in dogs and cats? By age 3, 80 % of dogs and 70% of cats have some form of periodontal disease.

We all know that it is important to brush our own teeth regularly to prevent plaque buildup. Plaque forms in only 6 to 8 hours and hardens into tartar within 3-5 days. Tartar on the teeth above the gumline (where we can see it) can irritate the gums and cause gingivitis. Periodontal disease is when tartar gets under the gumline and causes the gums to lift away from the teeth, allowing bacteria to get into the supporting structures around the tooth.

There is a strong association between oral health and general health. When periodontal disease is present, bacteria from the mouth can enter the bloodstream and affect other organs, including the heart, liver and kidneys. The consequences of this bacterial showering can be grave.

So, the next question is: How do we PREVENT periodontal disease and all of the systemic diseases that can accompany it?


It is important to use veterinary toothpaste, NOT human toothpaste, as human toothpaste could cause stomach upset in dogs and cats. Veterinary toothpaste also comes in flavours that are more appealing to our canine and feline friends, like chicken, beef and malt.

A soft-bristled toothbrush should be used; they are actually superior to finger cap toothbrushes for cleaning the teeth. Using a 45-degree angle against the gumline, use a soft circular motion, mostly on the outside surfaces of the teeth.

It is important to note that brushing should be introduced gradually, with plenty of positive reinforcement so that your pet can become accustomed to it. Brushing should be done at least three times per week to make a difference—remember that plaque hardens to tartar within 3-5 days! Daily brushing is the gold standard.


I hear this all the time – “my pet eats dry food, so their teeth should be fine.” This is a common MYTH! Regular dry food cannot reach plaque below the gumline. Most of the kibbles are so small they barely have to be chewed, and they crumble into a billion little pieces once they are bitten.

Dental foods are really the way to prevent plaque buildup. Look for the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval. Several dental foods are available from your veterinary clinic for dogs and cats. Most of them are larger kibbles that tend not to crumble easily once chewed.

One of our preferred diets, Hill’s t/d Oral Health, has been clinically proven to reduce plaque by 39% in dogs and 58% in cats after a dental cleaning versus a typical dry dog or cat food.

What about dental chews? I always prefer dental food over chews for a few reasons. With dental food, cats and dogs are cleaning their teeth every time they eat. Another benefit is that we don’t have to add any more calories to the diet. Some of the dental chews are very calorie-dense and contribute to obesity. Lastly, many dental chews for dogs are just too hard and can cause tooth fractures. The rule of thumb is that if you can’t indent it with your fingernail, or if it would hurt to hit yourself in the knee with it, don’t give it to your dog to chew. Avoid bones, antlers, hooves, hard nylon bones, and ice cubes. Tennis balls should also be avoided as they are very abrasive, almost like sandpaper on your dog’s teeth!

Your Veterinarian

The most important part of your pet’s oral health is regular exams with your veterinarian so that problems can be identified and addressed promptly. Your pet should have an oral health exam before starting an at-home preventative care program. Brushing could potentially be painful for animals who already have advanced periodontal disease.

Your veterinarian will examine the teeth and look for tartar, periodontal disease, loose teeth, discoloured teeth, fractured teeth, masses in the oral cavity and malocclusion (misalignment). He or she may recommend a dental procedure under general anesthesia. This may include dental radiographs, a full oral exam including probing of all of the gums, ultrasonic and subgingival scaling, polishing, fluoride application, and extractions or other procedures as necessary.

Some signs of oral health problems to watch for include

  • poor appetite or weight loss
  • bad breath
  • bleeding from the gums or mouth
  • swelling or pain around the mouth
  • discoloured teeth
  • difficulty chewing or drooling
  • broken or loose teeth
  • changes in behaviour – irritability, loss of interest in activities, being withdrawn

Often, animals hide discomfort from dental disease, so it is important to have regular visits with your veterinarian to keep your pet healthy and check for early signs of any dental problems. February is National Pet Dental Health Month, but we believe that oral health care should be a daily ritual for dogs and cats!

Written by Dr. Jaime Lawless