Dog and Cat Dental Care

Dental Care from a Veterinarian's Perspective

Dog sits next to toothbrush

An In-Depth Look with Dr. Ingrid B. Pyka

Caring for pets’ teeth is a mystery for many pet owners.

In reality, our little furry friends’ dental issues are really quite similar to ours.

Tooth Anatomy

Teeth are a set of highly mineralized living tissues used by mammals to hold, tear, and chew. They are significant not only for eating, but also for protection. The teeth even play an important role in keeping the tongue safely moist inside the mouth.

Although teeth have different shapes and functions, each still shares the same structural anatomy. The innermost portion is the pulp/root canal, in which the blood vessels and nerves lie. Surrounding this canal, the dentin provides the structure for most of the tooth. The shiny, protective enamel covers the outer part of the crown, which is the visible portion of the tooth. The roots of the tooth are firmly held into the jawbone with the periodontal ligament. This strong sheath of tissue “glues” the tooth root to the surrounding bone. The gum tissue overlying the base of teeth is called the gingiva.

Dog tooth diagram

Dental Growth

Like people, dogs and cats have two sets of teeth. The initial smaller set, called deciduous teeth, includes incisors, canines, and premolars. As the puppy or kitten grows, the permanent teeth push their way out. The “baby” teeth roots absorb, causing the teeth to fall out. To fill in the void in the back of the now larger adolescent jaws, an additional set of teeth, the molars, emerge. In dogs, this entire transition is usually complete by 5-7 months of age, with a total of 42 adult teeth. Cats generally grow in their 30 adult teeth by 5-6 months.

Growth Abnormalities

Certainly, as with any other growth process, much can go wrong in dental development. Faults in the enamel, direction of growth, or even the jaw shape can result in poor conformation, weakness in the dental structure, predisposition to decay, and difficulty in chewing.

The most common early dental problems seen in general veterinary practice are remnant deciduous teeth. These are the early teeth that fail to fall out when the permanent teeth erupt through the gum. It is especially prevalent in smaller dog breeds. Remnant deciduous teeth not only can cause serious misalignments of the teeth, but can also contribute to early dental disease as they entrap food, tarter, and bacteria.

Some medications given during the early stages of tooth development can result in permanent changes in the teeth. The antibiotic tetracycline, for example, if taken at an early age will cause permanent yellow or brown discoloration of the teeth.

In dogs, dental transition is usually complete by 5–7 months of age, with a total of 42 adult teeth. Cats generally grow in their 30 adult teeth by 5–6 months.

Tarter Formation

Pug with bad teeth

As food particles, saliva, and bacteria collect on the dental surface, they form a soft plaque. Within 24-48 hours, however, the plaque begins to solidify into the mineralized tarter. Tarter firmly adheres to the teeth and harbors even more bacteria, resulting in an active inflammation of the gums called gingivitis.

The large amounts of bacteria in the mouth can also become a source of infection for the rest of the body. Each time the animal breathes and swallows, the bacteria are shed into the lungs, heart, kidneys, etc., potentially seeding further organ disease.

Periodontal Disease

Any damage to the tooth’s surrounding gum and supportive bone tissues is considered periodontal disease. In Stages 1 and 2 of periodontal disease, the gums have mild to moderate gingivitis. The gingiva begins to recede away from the tooth surface and halitosis (bad breath) may already become noticeable. These changes are still reversible with appropriate treatment.

As the periodontal tissue infection progresses, the deep tissue adhesions and bone react and reabsorb. These are permanent changes in which the stability between the tooth root and the bone is lost. Painful abscesses at the root tip may develop once the integrity of the periodontum has been lost. Eventually the tooth may even fall out. These patients classify with Stages 3 or 4 periodontal disease.

One significant concern for cats includes tooth resorptions. Unknown if they result from periodontal disease or another autoimmune process, these cavity-like defects in the tooth are usually progressive and very painful. These teeth generally should be extracted. Some cases are so severe they may require full mouth extractions.

Cat gets veterinary exam

Dental Cleaning

A thorough dental cleaning procedure involves literally scraping tarter from the teeth and under the gum lining. At that time, your veterinarian will also examine all dental, gingival, and oral surfaces, looking for tooth decay, fractures, gingival pockets, and abnormal growths. Dental radiographs may be necessary to assess the root and bone structure. A final polishing will smooth the grooves on the teeth to help delay tarter recurrence.

Animals generally will not tolerate comprehensive teeth cleanings while awake. Patients should be safely anesthetized for a dental cleaning. As anesthesia does always carry its risks, discuss with your veterinarian the risks vs. benefits of such a procedure for your pet’s condition.

While patients should be safely anesthetized for a dental cleaning, this carries risks, so discuss with your veterinarian the risks vs. benefits of such a procedure for your pet’s condition.

Your Pet’s Teeth

On examination, your veterinarian will assess your pet’s oral health and make recommendations.  With every visit, have your veterinarian show your pet’s teeth to you, so you are familiar with any subtle changes.

Meanwhile, the most evident problem you may notice with your pet may be bad breath. In other cases, your pet may begin chattering, drooling, eating hesitantly or stop eating altogether. Your first indication of a problem may even be a sudden swelling at the cheek from a tooth root abscess. Contact your veterinarian promptly with any abnormalities.

Home Dental Care

Pet oral care is an important opportunity to provide preventive care at home. Granted, some pets simply will not tolerate us near their mouths. Be patient and, more importantly, be safe. Allow a veterinary staff member to show you the best way to handle your pet.

Dog gets teeth brushed

A daily two minute brushing will significantly reduce the plaque and tarter build-up in your dog or cat’s mouth. With gradual, gentle introduction of the brush and toothpaste over several weeks, many dogs, and even some cats, will allow some brushing and/or oral rinsing. Use only dog and cat toothpaste that does not contain fluoride. Pet toothpastes are available in several palatable flavors.

Though a vaccine has been produced that may help decrease some forms of periodontitis in dogs, it is by no means a preventive by itself. Consider other home options, such as oral rinses, water additives and dental diets. Discuss with your veterinarian which chew toys and treats are appropriate for your pet.

Treat your pet’s teeth like your own. Prevention of oral disease will help the overall health and well-being of your dogs and cats.

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