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Dental Hygiene - Caring For Your Pet's Teeth

Periodontal Disease In Your Pets


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Ron Hines DVM PhD

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All dogs cats and ferrets eventually suffer from some form of dental disease. This is because of the soft diets we feed them, canine and feline genetics, as well as the fact that our pets now live very long lives. Dogs, cats and ferrets, unlike people, rarely suffer from tooth enamel decay. What I do generally find is infection, inflammation and receding of the margins of the gums (gingival) where they abut (touch) the teeth as well as tartar accumulation on the teeth and just below the gum line surrounding the teeth. A combination of these two problems is the number one causes of strong breathe in your pet, drooling and discomfort. I also suspect that Dental Disease is a major cause of the kidney and heart disease I see in older pets. This may be because the bacteria that live in the infected tissue surrounding the teeth enter the blood stream and lodge in thse other organs.

When a pet is presented to me because of bad breath, I begin with an oral examination. Gums of these pets often bleed easily and hard, yellow tartar can be seen on the necks and bases of the teeth. Often one side of the mouth is worse than the other because of chewing habits. If I am suspicious that the pet may have a systemic illness that is making it prone to gum disease I draw blood samples for examination as well. It is a good idea to have a general blood health screen performed yearly on all pets over six or seven years of age. For instance, in cats, the feline immunodeficiency virus is a common cause of gum disease and halitosis. Dental disease is also worse in certain breeds. Siamese and Persian cats as well as Maltese, Toy Poodles and Yorkshire terriers are particularly prone to tartar accumulation and receding gums. This is due to both their genetics and taste for table foods and canned diet.

Puppies, Kittens and Kits:

Puppies and kittens often have a strong mouth odor at the time they are teething. They may run a fever as well. This is a natural phenomenon. One can purchase a benzocaine-containing medication for teething infants and massage it on to the puppy or kittens sore loose teeth. In toy breeds, the milk canine teeth (temporary teeth) or fangs of the upper jaw and occasionally the lower jaw are not shed properly. This results in the permanent teeth sprouting behind the temporary teeth. Milk teeth have very short roots and can be easily removed by your veterinarian. I usually do it at the same time the pet is anesthetized to be spayed or neutered. When I do find soft, discolored teeth they are usually the milk teeth (deciduous teeth) and are due to mineral deficiencies in the mother. Less commonly, teeth are discolored because the pet or the mother received one of the tetracycline antibiotics during or just after pregnancy or the drug was given to the young pet. Drugs that will discolor teeth include tetracycline, oxytetracycline, chlortetracycline and doxycycline.

Malocclusions: In addition to retained puppy fangs and fangs broken in accidents, the most common dental problem I see are misaligned teeth or malocclusion. This is particularly common in dogs and cats with flat faces. Often the lower jaw protrudes far beyond the upper one so that the anterior teeth of the lower and upper jaws do not touch. This is not a painful condition but I suggest that dogs with severe overbite not be bred. Even though the lower fangs may erode the upper gums initially, the teeth soon shift on their own preventing irritation.

Serious Health Problems Caused By Tooth Problems:

Leaving bad breath aside, dental disease is a serious problem in your pet. This is because bacteria that accumulate just under the gum line frequently break loose in clumps that enter the blood stream. From there, they lodge on the valves of the heart or within the filtering apparatus of the kidneys and liver where they can cause irreversible damage and scaring.
Canned vs. Dry Foods: Cats and dogs that eat canned food or primarily table foods have the most tooth and gum problems. Most pets prefer canned diets and table foods over crunchy kibble. But the soft foods cling to the nooks and crannies between the teeth and at the gum line and do not massage the gums or wear away plaque as they are chewed. As much as pets enjoy soft foods it is really a disservice to feed these products to them. Dry cat and dog chows have an abrasive crunchy action when they are eaten keeping the teeth and mouth cleaner. Several dry dog and cat foods (such as Friskie’s Dental Diet) are sold that are especially efficient at keeping the teeth clean and minimizing periodontal disease. For reasons that elude me, dental formulated dog diets are often prescription items. Some of these a formed into large, abrasive kibble that help clean the teeth. Others contain enzymes that help dissolve plaque.

Sticks And Stones:

Dogs that chew on sticks and bones have very clean teeth. However, they often wear their teeth down until the root canals are exposed. Unlike humans, it is very rare for dogs with worn teeth to have any problems or evidence of pain. The exception is the fourth upper premolar or carnassials tooth. These two teeth do 90 percent of the animal’s chewing When this tooth has a crack in it that extends below the gum line, an abscess forms just below the eye. Extracting this tooth cures this condition. Toy dogs with root infections of their canine teeth (fangs) sometimes sneeze and drain from the nostril on the affected side. Removing the bad tooth cures this condition as well.

Brushing Your Pet’s Teeth:

Your pet relies on you for dental care. Dry food and chew toys help but they do not entirely remove tartar at the gum line where dental problems begin. Using a soft, pediatric toothbrush or finger brush and toothpaste designed for dogs and cats will help prevent dental disease. Most dogs, and ferrets accept the taste of these toothpastes readily. Although cats are not naturally fond of having their teeth brushed, it is important to start the tooth brushing routine between 3-6 months of age. Most pets dislike human toothpaste so do not use it. Start by simply massaging your pets lips and mouth with your fingers – then give him a treat. When he is used to this, get him accustomed to having his lips and teeth rubbed. Then place a little of the toothpaste on your fingers as you do this. Most of the tartar (80%) forms on the outer (bucal) surface of the teeth so you do not need to spend large amounts of time cleaning the inner surfaces. Concentrate on the rear teeth and the base of the canine teeth (fangs). Begin brushing for very short periods; very gently and very slowly. When you are done, give your pet a treat for being a good patient. Proceed longer and more thoroughly gradually from day to day and stop when your pet begins to squirm or show resentment. Within a few weeks you should be able to do a rather thorough job. A good time to brush your pet’s teeth in first thing in the morning. Some pets by nature resent tooth brushing more than others. Difficult pets will have to rely more on hospital cleaning and specialty diets and treats.

Professional Tooth Cleaning:

Even with brushing it may still be necessary for you to have your pet’s teeth cleaned every year or so by a veterinarian. I use tartar scrapers and an ultrasonic cleaning machine called a Cavitron. A few pets are so docile (or petrified) that this can be done without anesthesia. But most pets need a low dose of dissociative anesthetic to help them tolerate the whine of the machine and manipulation. I pay careful attention to remove all tartar from below the gum line. This is the tartar that causes the gums to recede. Enamel covers only the crown of the tooth. Once the gums have receded enough to expose the softer dentin, tarter buildup accelerates. After I have cleaned your pet’s teeth I place them on a two-week course of doxycycline antibiotic to encourage the gums to regrow. Doxycycline oral patches are also available. If the gums have receded so much that the tooth is loose in its socket or one can pass a probe between a multi-rooted tooth the tooth is best extracted. Dogs, cats and ferrets do excellently with few or no teeth. With pet extractions, it is the owner’s sensibilities rather than the pets that are occasionally flustered. Complex dental work is possible on pets. I do not do them or recommend them with the exception of the large canine teeth (fangs) on guard dogs. When over 50% of the supporting ligaments and bone that anchor a tooth is lost I extract them. I believe that complex dental work primarily satisfy the owners sensibilities rather than the pet’s needs.

Your pet’s teeth are anchored to the bones of the face by ligaments, cementum and the bones of the mandible and maxilla. More than ninety percent of dogs, cats and ferrets over six years of age have some degree of periodontal disease. It begins with the formation of plaque composed of food particles and bacteria. At its onset, plaque is clear, fluid and sticky. Then, minerals in the pet’s saliva work to harden this plaque into calculus. Bacteria residing in this calculus produce acids that dissolve away the tooth’s supporting structure and lead to inflammation of the gums. The flavor of toothpaste I find most accepted is malt. Others contain tea tree oil.

Dental Chews for Dogs:


There are many on the market. Some contain fluoride help keep your dogs teeth and gums in a clean and healthy condition.
Rawhide Bones: Dogs love them and the do an excellent job of massaging the gums and removing soft tartar. Smaller cylindrical ones similar to jerky strips are often accepted by cats and ferrets.

Pig Ears and Hooves:

They are also excellent for dental hygiene

Nylabone Dental Chew Balls:

Nylabone dental chew balls come in a variety of sizes that help fight plaque and tartar build-up. Nylabones last a long time. They have raised dental tips to massage your dog's teeth and gums while attacking plaque and tartar build up.

Breath Spray:

I have little experience using these products. Petrodex pet breath spray contains a non-foaming formula that is said to help control offensive mouth odors.

Feline Odontoclastic Resorptive Lesions:

Some cats, particularly Siamese cats and long hair Persians develop cavities in their teeth. In others, the gums appear to recede leaving the “neck” of the tooth exposed with out the presence of much tartar. These cats often loose weight so the condition may be painful. These teeth may eventually break off. The kindest thing you can do for a cat with this problem is to have all affected teeth extracted. He will be as happy as a clam at high tide - just don’t show him his reflection in a mirror.

Newer Information

Recently, an organism call Bartonella has been implicated in chronic oral infections in cats. The diagnosis of Bartonella infection is made using a laboratory test called the Wesern Blot. When cats are positive for this organism it can be sucessfully treated using azithromycin, doxycycline or rifampin.