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Pet Dental Health

By Colleen Williams and medically reviewed by Jennifer Coates, DVM
published: July 12, 2017 - updated: January 18, 2023 • 4 min. read
dog teeth

Key Takeaways

  • Taking care of your pet’s teeth and gums is essential to maintaining good health
  • Just like in people, gum disease, cavities, and mouth ulcers can occur in pets.
  • Frequent home brushing and professional cleanings when needed are recommended for good oral health.

On average, people brush their teeth twice a day and visit their dentist every six months. But how often do you provide dental care for your dog or cat? Many of the same dental illnesses and conditions humans develop are also developed by pets. Taking care of your pet’s teeth and gums is essential to maintaining good health; and just like in humans, complications can arise from diseases left untreated.

Common Conditions

  1. Periodontal gum disease is the biggest threat to your pet’s dental health. It develops when bacteria build up on teeth and under the animal’s gum line, combining with saliva and bits of food to form plaque, which then hardens and calcifies into tartar. Plaque and tartar are very irritating, and over time, the gums begin to separate from the teeth. If left untreated, infections and abscesses can form, causing extreme pain and problems eating. Reddened gums and excessively bad breath are initial indicators while receding gums are visible in the disease’s later stages. If an abscess is present, facial swelling, bad breath, and an inability to chew normally may be noticeable. Professional teeth cleaning is required to remove the plaque and tartar, and in advanced cases, teeth may have to be removed.
  2. Cavities are common in people but less so in pets. Just as in humans, cavities result from the decaying of hard tooth tissue due to a build-up of bacteria. A cavity may be visible on your pet’s tooth, but often there are no other symptoms. The hole in your pet’s tooth may be filled by a veterinary dentist, but if the tooth has decayed too much it may have to be removed. Cats more commonly develop a condition called tooth resorption, which is a bit like a huge cavity that eats away at one or more teeth. Tooth resorption is extremely painful.
  3. Tissue inflammation, ulcers, and wounds in the mouth are other concerns for pet parents. While some pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes and lupus can cause these problems, there are also many other causes. Malnutrition, an electrical shock injury, or trauma to the mouth can all cause mouth inflammation, wounds, and ulcers. Symptoms include bad breath, red and swollen gums, “ropey” saliva, pain, and loss of appetite. Veterinary care depends on the underlying cause, but most often drugs will be prescribed to reduce inflammation and pain and to treat or prevent infection.
Protect your pet

Visiting Your Vet

If you notice any unusual changes in your pet’s eating habits, including loss of appetite and problems chewing, seek veterinary care. Any visible malformations of your cat or dog’s gums, cheeks, tongue, or teeth should also be reasons to make an appointment. If you have a puppy or kitten, pay close attention to your pet’s teeth as they develop; crowded teeth can also cause inflammation and pain as well as structural anomalies that may require treatment to correct.

Preventing Dental Issues

It is recommended that your pet visit a vet for professional teeth cleanings on an as-needed basis. Some pets should have their teeth cleaned once a year or even more frequently. Others, particularly those whose teeth are brushed daily, do fine with less frequent cleanings. A professional dental cleaning is a multistep procedure that can ensure your pet’s continued health.

dog getting teeth brushed
  1. Physical exam.
    Because teeth cleaning requires your pet to be put under anesthesia, an exam is needed to ensure he or she is healthy enough to undergo the procedure. Blood and urine tests may be run depending on your pet’s medical history, age, and other factors. An exam will also be performed specifically on the mouth and face area to start diagnosing any abnormalities and target specific areas for treatment.
  2. Exam under anesthesia.
    Your dog or cat must be anesthetized to thoroughly examine their mouth and clean their teeth. A veterinary technician will closely monitor your pet’s condition throughout the procedure and keep an eye on vital signs, including heartbeat and body temperature. A more in-depth exam will be conducted by the vet to further look for dental conditions such as cavities, periodontal disease, and ulcers.
  3. Tooth cleaning.
    Ultrasonic cleaning tools along with hand instruments will be used to remove plaque and tartar from the teeth, including under the gum line.
  4. Tooth polishing.
    With a high-speed hand tool, the vet or technician will smooth and even out the surface of your dog or cat’s teeth.
  5. Fluoride.
    This liquid is brushed onto your pet’s teeth and works to harden enamel.
  6. Post-cleaning exam.
    Dental x-rays are often taken because many dental problems hide under the gumline and can’t be seen during an exam. Additional treatments may be performed or scheduled for a future date.

Of course, pet parents should continue to care for their pet’s dental health at home with regular tooth brushings.

What Pet Insurance Covers

Healthy Paws pet insurance plans cover accidental injury to your dog or cat’s teeth, including extractions and reconstructions. Routine dental care, such as the professional cleanings described above, is considered preventative and is not covered. Taking care of your dog or cat’s dental health is essential to keeping a healthy pet. With preventative at-home and professional cleanings, you can help keep dental disease at bay.

colleen williams
By Colleen Williams

Over the past decade, Colleen has written about health, wellness, beauty, and even pets for The New York Times, The Cut, Refinery29, xoVain, Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, and Seattle Met Magazine, as well as many beauty brands. She has a BFA in Art History from the University of New Mexico and an AAS in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design in New York.

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jennifer coates
By Jennifer Coates, DVM

Dr. Jennifer Coates received her Bachelor of Science degree in biology from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. After graduation, she worked for several years in the fields of conservation and animal welfare before pursuing her childhood dream—becoming a veterinarian. She graduated with honors from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and has worked as an Associate Veterinarian and Chief of Staff in Virginia, Wyoming, and Colorado. Jennifer is also a prolific writer about all things related to veterinary medicine and the well-being of our animal friends. She has published several short stories and books, including the Dictionary of Veterinary Terms, Vet-Speak Deciphered for the Non-Veterinarian. She currently contributes to the Healthy Paws pet insurance blog as a freelance writer. In her free time, Jennifer enjoys life in Colorado with her family and friends… many of whom walk on four legs.

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