Should I Brush My Dog’s Teeth? What Every Pet Owner Should Know About Routine Dental Health

Author: Dr. Sara Catala, Happy Tails Veterinary Hospital, Apex  

Have you noticed that your pet has bad breath? Bad breath is usually one of the most common signs owners notice when their pets have dental disease, but is not the only sign you can look out for. Dental disease is one of the most common diseases in dogs and cats which can have serious consequences on their health and longevity if not addressed properly. Given how quickly plaque, tartar, and gingivitis (swollen gums) can develop (within 24-72 hours for tartar and plaque and 2 weeks for gingivitis), it is important that pet owners learn to identify the signs of dental disease as well as implementing steps to prevent it.  

Besides bad breath, other signs of dental disease include:  

  • Trouble eating/dropping food 
  • Excessive drooling  
  • Bleeding and/or swollen gums  
  • Broken teeth   
  • Swelling around mouth  
  • Discolored or broken teeth  
  • Plaque covered teeth  
  • Malocclusion (misalignment of teeth) 
  • Extra teeth or retained baby teeth 

Statistics show that by the age of three most dogs (80%) and cats (70%) will already show signs of periodontal disease (disease that occurs below the gumline). Periodontal disease happens once bacteria within the tartar start to gain access to the structures below the gumline causing pain, bone loss, and possibly root abscesses which are very painful to your pet and will likely lead to tooth loss and even spreading of bacteria to other organs of the body such as the heart and kidneys.  

By implementing a dental hygiene regimen at home, you will try to minimize and slow down the tartar accumulation and hopefully periodontal disease in your pet. Currently the American Veterinary Dental College recommends that dogs and cats have their teeth brushed at least once daily using a pet safe tooth paste. Ideally, we should start training our pets to get used to having their teeth brushed from an early age. A finger brush can be helpful when starting to brush teeth and/or for smaller pets and then you can progress to a larger, soft head tooth brush if your pet is a medium or large bred dog. If your pet doesn’t allow for teeth brushing, then special water additives and/or dental treats can be incorporated to their routine to help slow down the tartar accumulation.  

In addition to the routine dental care at home, it is also important and recommended that all pets have their teeth evaluated by their family veterinarian at least once yearly. This exam will allow your veterinarian to evaluate the level of tartar and gingivitis present and even detect certain issues such as broken or discolored teeth that could be present. Your veterinarian will then determine and recommend when a complete oral assessment and dental cleaning procedure should be performed (usually every 1-2 years depending on each pet).  A proper dental assessment/cleaning should always be performed under general anesthesia. Even though some people advocate for “anesthesia free” dental cleanings, these are actually not recommended as they give a false impression that your pets’ teeth have been properly cleaned, when in reality they are only scraping the surface of the teeth and not cleaning and evaluating the areas below the gumline and the roots of the teeth. Remember that periodontal disease occurs below the gumline and can only be evaluated while under anesthesia and with the use of intraoral radiographs.  Also, these type of “anesthesia free” cleanings require a level of restraint on your pet that can cause further anxiety and stress by being held down in order to scrape the surface of the teeth.   

If you feel that your pet may have dental disease, has one or more of the above mentioned symptoms, and/or has never had a complete dental assessment under anesthesia and is at least three years old, I recommend that you consult your family veterinarian for further advice. Below you will find links to trusted and useful resources about this topic.

Dr. Sara Catala is the Veterinarian/Owner of Happy Tails Veterinary Hospital in Apex, NC