Last updated Jan. 23, 2024

Imagine how your teeth would look and feel if you didn’t brush them for years – or even for just a couple of weeks. Your pet’s teeth are no different. Unless you regularly provide some form of dental care, you are ignoring an important part of your pet’s overall health and wellness.

Dental disease is an infection of the teeth, gums, and surrounding structures and is by far the most common major health problem of cats and dogs. According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, more than 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats show signs of oral disease by the time they are three years old.

It starts with a build-up of plaque. Plaque eventually turns to calculus and quickly forms small pockets where an animal’s gums meet its teeth. The gums can separate from the tooth and this allows more bacteria and food to accumulate. Once the gums have started to move away, the bone surrounding the teeth can recede. This is periodontal disease, which can allow bacteria to now enter the bloodstream leading to more serious health problems including heart, lung, and kidney disease if left untreated.

Most animals won’t show any symptoms, so the key to managing dental disease is prevention. If you do notice any symptoms – red gums (also called gingivitis) are usually the first sign of dental disease! – contact your veterinarian.

Symptoms of severe dental disease in dogs and cats may include:

  • Bad breath
  • Lethargy, inactivity, or depression
  • Poor grooming
  • Salivating
  • Red, swollen, or bleeding gums (gingivitis)
  • Plaque accumulation on the teeth
  • Decreased or loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Dropping food from mouth while eating
  • Facial swelling
  • Discharge from the nose or eyes
  • Pawing at the face
  • Teeth becoming loose or falling out

The key to managing dental disease in dogs and cats is prevention. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) dental care guidelines recommend regular oral examinations and dental cleanings, under general anesthesia, for all adult dogs and cats. AAHA recommends these procedures at least annually starting at one year of age for cats and small-breed dogs, and at two years of age for large-breed dogs.

It’s also important to practice regular dental care at home with your pet to prevent disease. Because it helps remove soft plaque from the teeth, daily tooth brushing is the best way to slow (and possibly prevent) the recurrence of dental problems. Most dogs and cats can be trained to tolerate tooth brushing, but there are dental care alternatives for those that won’t allow you to brush their teeth – or that can be used in addition to daily tooth brushing.

Recommended dental care products for dogs and cats:

  • Dental wipes can be used as an alternative to tooth brushing, as they remove soft plaque without the possible irritation of the brush bristles. Dental wipes are particularly beneficial in cats and small dogs, but should be introduced slowly and with positive reinforcement.
  • Dental treats and chews physically remove plaque and typically contain enzymatic ingredients that help decrease how easily plaque can build up on teeth. Make sure your pet chews on treats and doesn’t try to swallow them whole!
  • Dry dental diets may slow, but not prevent, the development of recurrent periodontal disease.
  • Oral rinses and water additives can reduce the adherence of plaque to teeth, but won’t remove plaque that is already there.

Daily use of products that have been awarded the Veterinary Oral Health Council seal of product approval may help you use the most effective products to keep your pet’s teeth clean and the gum tissues and bone around the roots healthy. Whenever you introduce a new dental care product, take it slow. Introducing one product at a time can help determine the cause of any dietary intolerances your pet may have to a new treat or chew.

For more information on brushing your pet’s teeth, visit the small animal dentistry and oral surgery service, and talk with your veterinarian about developing a dental care plan for your furry friend.