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Dental Disease Is The Most Common Chronic Disease In Cats And Cats – Yet Is The Most Commonly Overlooked!

Dental DiseaseDental disease affects more pets than any other diseases (although obesity is moving in for a close second). Dental disease is rarely fatal, but it can cause complications with other systems, as well as cause discomfort and downright pain in the mouth. It often lurks under the radar (especially in cats – how many cats dig having their mouth looked at?) until it becomes so severe, drastic measures are needed.

If your pet gets a thorough physical exam once or twice a year, then your veterinarian is looking at the mouth, and can keep you updated on the level of dental disease she sees. If your pet hasn’t seen a vet in years, it’s quite common for us to find some rather serious dental disease that catches many owners by surprise. Often these pets need multiple tooth extractions, as the mouth has become so infected, the bone holding the teeth in place has literally rotted away. These dental cleanings are major oral surgery! Your pet must be under general anesthesia while the teeth are cleaned, the infected teeth pulled, and dental x-rays taken to make sure extractions are complete, as well as help make sure the teeth that seem good actually are healthy enough to stay in the mouth. If you’re thinking this sounds expensive, you’re right. I’ve had some of these severely diseased mouths take 3+ hours of surgery time and cost well over $1,000. Some are so severe, we can only do half the mouth at a time, as the pet is under anesthesia so long, we have to recover them and schedule the other half in a few weeks.

So no, that is not fun. You’d like to be a rock-star pet owner and do anything you can to keep your pet’s teeth and gums healthy. Thankfully, there are several options for at-home dental care. Full disclosure – no matter how highly a product is rated, or how diligently you use it, many animals may still require dental cleanings under anesthesia. The realistic goal is to lengthen the time between cleanings, and reduce the number of extractions needed at each procedure.

Breed and genetics play a huge role in dental health! Generally speaking, the larger the dog, the healthier the teeth. The labs, German shepherds, and pit bulls tend to have good oral health. Are their owners brushing their teeth every day? Most aren’t. These dogs have three factors in their favor:

  • Mouth anatomy allows for better air flow and rinsing. Think about that pitty smiling at you (if you can get him to stop kissing you long enough) – you can see every tooth and even the insides of his cheeks! Now think about the pug that is smiling at you. You might see a couple teeth, but not much. Small breed dogs have more button-type mouths. They are very closed, and that dark damp cave is a great place for infection to thrive. The cheeks and lips hold food and bacteria smack against those teeth.
  • Larger dogs tend to be more interested in chewing. Some small breed dogs will chew with the best of ’em, but I have many small breed patients who could take or leave a chew toy.
  • The biggest factor is genetics. The kid in your grade school class who got cavities all the time might not have been living on candy and soda – she might have just inherited many factors that predispose to dental disease. Same with small breed dogs. They tend to have much more aggressive bacteria in their mouths that erode at bone and inflame gums. I’ve seen chihuahua and yorkie patients who need a dental at 2 years old. Those adult teeth haven’t been in long, but they have painful, bleeding gums and breath that could stop a train. Their owners didn’t do anything wrong! All the tooth brushing in the world can’t fight genetics. Even with aggressive home care, some of these dogs who were dealt a bad DNA hand often require multiple extractions at a young age.

But you want to do all you can for your pet.

Far and away, the best tool to prevent dental disease is tooth brushing. It has to happen every. Single. Day. That tooth brushing done at the groomer every month or so is completely ineffective. Save your money.

Why is brushing every day so important?

Think about when you wake up in the morning, and you feel that film on your teeth. You can scrape it off, it’s gross, maybe a little sticky, depending on what you’ve been eating. That is plaque. When you brush your teeth, the plaque is easily removed. If you don’t brush your teeth over the next few days, that plaque combines with bacteria and minerals, hardening to form tartar, also known as calculus (no, not the math class). Once tartar has formed, it is like concrete. It’s very difficult to remove, and cannot be removed with brushing. The only way to remove it is with an electric metal scaler at the vet’s office, under anesthesia. This plaque-to-tartar transformation takes place over the course of about two days.

Think of pet dental disease kinda like a cell phone plan. The plaque is the “pay as you go” plan. Every day it’s a little bit, but by staying on top of your bill (or brushing and removing plaque) it rarely adds up. Tartar is the “2-year contract” plan. Once you’ve got it, it’s yours to keep. Yes, you can get rid of it, but it’s expensive and requires a bit of work. Not that I am promoting cell phone plans – just trying to give a non-gross analogy.

Brushing every day removes the plaque before it turns into tartar. If you brush once a month, tartar has formed, and you aren’t removing it. You need to remove the plaque. Daily. Sure if you skip a day now and then, it’s not the end of the world (it takes 2-3 days to turn into tartar, so you have a little wiggle room). But shoot for every day. This is particularly important in small breed dogs who are so prone to rapidly progressing dental disease.

When is tooth brushing not a good idea? When the dental disease has progressed to the point of bleeding, painful gums or even, heaven forbid, loose teeth. Unfortunately, this is often when some owners become aware of the disease and say “I’ll start brushing his teeth now!” Please don’t. All it does at this point is irritate the gums, send more bacteria into your pet’s bloodstream, and, let’s face it, it just hurts! Remember, tooth brushing is all about removing plaque, which is basically invisible. If you’re seeing nasty green stuff, we’ve gone well beyond removing plaque!

Tooth brushing is best started at a young age. Or, if that ship sailed, after you’ve had a dental cleaning on your pet, and you have a clean slate. Remember, the point of tooth brushing is removing the sticky soft plaque BEFORE it turns into tartar! It’s more of a preventative than a treatment. And tooth brushing need not be a big ordeal every day! We don’t need to pry our cat’s mouth open and scrub the insides of those molars. (Or if you try, put it on Youtube – I’m sure your cat out-witting you will be hilarious to watch.)

If you’re willing to give tooth brushing a try, next week I’ll go over how to ease into it without adversely affecting your relationship with your pet.

Web-DVM guest blogger Dr. Karen Louis is a practicing small animal veterinarian.  See more of her articles at her blog at

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