Elisa Speckert, Veterinary Technician
River Road Veterinary Clinic

 Most dog and cat owners have had the distinct pleasure of being up-close and personal with their pet’s breath. From sloppy Golden Retriever kisses to the sandpaper tongue of your friendliest cat, the sentiment is usually appreciated, while sometimes the smell is not. What causes your pet’s breath to smell so bad, and is it a sign of something more serious? Some owners may have heard the term “periodontal disease”, while others may have been told that their pet needs a dental cleaning, or daily tooth brushing. Although dental health is becoming an increasing concern to pet owners and veterinarians alike many owners still find themselves unfamiliar with the world of companion animal dental care.

What is periodontal disease?

Periodontal disease refers to inflammation or infection of the teeth and their surrounding tissues. It is one of the most common health problems in companion animals. 70-80% of dogs and cats greater than 3 years old suffer from some level of periodontal disease. Your pet’s mouth, just like a human mouth, is full of bacteria. Gingivitis is an inflammatory reaction caused by irritation of the gums from a buildup of bacteria and salivary proteins. This plaque of bacteria and proteins continues to accumulate and hardens into tartar if it is not removed. Periodontal disease is divided into four grades, ranging from gingivitis to plaque, calculus, root exposure, and mobile teeth.

How do I know if my pet has periodontal disease?

Many common signs of periodontal disease are bad breath, yellow-brown crust on the teeth, bleeding gums, not eating, weight loss, change of chewing habits, abnormal drooling, dropping food out of the mouth, and swallowing food whole. Some animals will display multiple symptoms, while others may not display any at all.

Why is periodontal disease a problem?

Severe dental disease is painful for your pet. Infection and gum recession can result in permanent damage to the bone structure surrounding the teeth, causing them to fall out. Small-breed dogs are prone to fractures of the jawbone resulting from bone destruction.  Cats are also prone to developing “resorptive lesions”, resulting in nerve exposure and difficulty eating. Teeth affected by these lesions must be extracted. In severe cases, bacteria from the mouth can cause systemic infection, spreading to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver.

How is periodontal disease treated?

Once your pet is diagnosed with periodontal disease, a professional dental cleaning is necessary in order to remove hardened tartar and treat gingivitis. During a professional dental cleaning your pets teeth are scaled and polished above and below the gum line with ultrasonic cleaning equipment, removing all tartar. All loose or compromised teeth will also be extracted. Any questionable teeth should be radiographed using a dental radiograph machine.  If diagnosed early, a professional dental cleaning can be a short procedure that usually allows for full recovery of the gums and teeth. If done during a later stage of disease, the procedure is often longer, and some of the periodontal damage may be permanent. Unfortunately, all pets require general anesthesia in order to have their teeth cleaned. General anesthesia requires hospitalization and blood tests in order to monitor liver and kidney function. Pain medication and antibiotics can also be prescribed near the time of a professional dental cleaning.

What can I do to prevent periodontal disease in the future?

Brushing your pet’s teeth daily is the best way to prevent periodontal disease. Daily brushing can prevent your pet from ever needing a professional dental cleaning. It is important to use a specially formulated enzymatic dog and cat toothpaste, as human toothpaste does not work in the same way, and can be harmful. Toothbrushing allows for the removal of plaque before it can cause gingivitis and allow tartar formation. Specially formulated prescription dental diets can also help to prevent plaque accumulation. Enzymatic dental chews, wipes, gels, and water-additives are also helpful when brushing is not an option.

Being familiar with the answers to these five common questions will allow you to make informed decisions regarding your pet’s dental care. Healthier teeth and gums make a happier, all-around healthier companion.