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Dental disease in dogs and cats

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Dental disease in dogs and cats can be a serious problem.  As in people, plaque buildup on dog and cat teeth leads to red, irritated gums, a condition called gingivitis.  Plaque begins as a film of food particles and bacteria that can harden over time into a dark, rock-like scale.  Bacteria invade the gap between the gum and the tooth, causing inflammation.  Over time, bacteria can destroy the bone that holds the tooth in place, leading to tooth loss or the need for extraction.  On occasion, bacteria can even invade the bloodstream, leading to serious infections in other organs such as the heart.

Unfortunately, quite a bit of damage due to dental disease can occur before you notice anything.  Pets with early gum disease generally don’t show any signs at all, except for a little bad breath.  As the problem progresses, the gums can become very red and sore, and your pet may not want to chew hard food.  You might see smears of blood on your pet’s chew toys.  Pets often rub their mouths with their paws or against other surfaces.  The bad breath gets progressively worse, and pets with severe dental disease can have very foul mouth odors.

Just like us, our pets need regular dental checkups to keep their teeth and gums healthy.  Lifting the lips along the sides of the mouth can reveal dark-colored plaque or a line of reddish inflammation where the teeth meet the gums.  Teeth must be cleaned regularly to remove the buildup, and on a more thorough examination of the teeth, gums, and entire mouth, your veterinarian may identify teeth that need additional treatment or possibly extraction.  Because a thorough dental examination and cleaning in pets requires general anesthesia, your vet may also recommend blood work ahead of time to make sure your pet is a good candidate for the procedure.

Fortunately, you can do quite a bit to prevent dental problems before they start.  Feeding your pet a balanced diet of dry food helps to limit plaque buildup.  Chew toys and nylon bones are another good way to stimulate gums and scrape away plaque, and many toys that have been specifically designed for dental care are available.  It’s also a good idea to brush your pet’s teeth regularly with a toothpaste specifically developed for pets.  Do not use human toothpaste, because your pet is likely to swallow it, which irritates the stomach.  Your vet can show you how to brush and maintain your pet’s teeth as part of an overall dental health program.

 

Q&A

Do dogs and cats get dental disease just as people do?

Pets don’t get a lot of cavities, but often develop plaque buildup that leads to the red, inflamed gums associated with gingivitis.  Over time, bacterial plaque can destroy the bone that holds the tooth in place, leading to tooth loss and even blood infection.


How do I know if my pet is having dental problems?

Early problems show few signs, expect for bad breath and a buildup of gummy film (plaque) around the sides of the tooth.  As the problem progresses, grayish-brown plaque becomes more noticeable, the gums become red and sore, and your pet may not want to chew hard food or toys. 


How can dental problems be prevented?

Just like us, our pets need regular dental checkups to keep their teeth and gums healthy.  Dry food, chew toys, and nylon bones are also good ways to stimulate gums and limit plaque buildup.  It’s also a good idea to brush your pet’s teeth regularly with a toothpaste specifically developed for pets. 


Can pets get their teeth cleaned just like people?

Regular (eg, yearly) dental cleaning is needed to remove plaque buildup on teeth and gums.  The process is similar to that used in people, except that thorough cleaning in pets requires general anesthesia.

 

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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