Dog Dental Tips

By Alexander M. Reiter, December 2014, Updated November 2015

Periodontal disease, the most common disease occurring in dogs and cats, is defined as plaque-induced inflammatory pathology of any part of the tissues that hold the tooth in the mouth. >Plaque is a soft biofilm that contains bacteria and toxins. It accumulates on the surface of teeth within hours after dental cleaning; if it mineralizes, tartar (calculus) forms.

>Gingivitis is the reversible form of periodontal disease, affecting only gingiva (the gums). As inflammation continues, the gum detaches from the tooth, creating a pocket. Toxins from plaque bacteria and enzymes from inflammatory cells cause further destruction of periodontal tissues.

>Periodontitis is the more severe form of periodontal disease. It results in attachment loss, gingival recession and loss of alveolar bone, which loosen the tooth and put it at risk of falling out. In multi-rooted teeth, the furcation between two roots becomes exposed. Bacteria, toxins and inflammatory mediators may also be released into the bloodstream, allowing them to travel throughout the body and cause harm to important organ systems.

Your pet should generally have an annual oral examination performed by a veterinary health care professional. The amount of dental deposits (plaque and tartar) and the condition of the gingiva (color, texture, shape) will dictate the need for placing your pet under anesthesia to have dental scaling and periodontal therapy performed.

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Although anesthesia will never be 100 percent risk-free, modern anesthetic and patient-evaluation techniques minimize the risks, and millions of dentistry and oral surgery procedures are safely performed each year.

(Anesthesia-free dentistry by untrained individuals is inappropriate for several reasons, including insufficient cleaning of inaccessible tooth surfaces, oral discomfort and serious pain.)

An effective home oral hygiene program consists of daily tooth brushing and use of various oral health care products (e.g., rinses/gels, chew toys, dental treats). When oral hygiene is less than optimal, plaque can mineralize within two to three days, forming tartar that resists being easily brushed off. All you need is a soft-bristled and appropriately sized toothbrush, veterinary toothpaste, some patience and one minute each day.

Certain toys and treats can be used in combination with daily tooth brushing, oral health care products, yearly dental check-ups, and dental cleaning and periodontal therapy. Toys and treats should not be too hard, as very hard materials can fracture teeth; rocks and large ice cubes should also be avoided. Tennis balls are popular toys for many dogs; however, they are very abrasive and will rapidly wear down the teeth.

Chief of Dentistry and Oral Surgery Service, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine