Your Pet And Dental Disease

Your Pet and Dental Disease

Many people report that their cat or dog has bad breath.  While many pets tend to eat or chew on things that may not exactly be minty fresh, that unfortunate odor that greets you at the door could be a sign of something more serious.  Bad dog or cat breath may be a symptom that your pet has dental disease.

What is “dental disease”?

In veterinary medicine, “dental disease” usually refers to the process in which bacteria build up on the surface of teeth.  Without regular brushing, bacteria in your pet’s mouth accumulate and form a yellowish layer of material on teeth called biofilm.  This biofilm is what’s known as dental plaque or tartar.  This plaque, essentially an infection, causes inflammation of the surrounding tissues.  Redness where the gums meet the teeth (gingivitis) is one example of such inflammation.  The inflammation loosens the tooth attachment, creating a pocket alongside the tooth that the bacteria can then move into.  If allowed to progress, the infection can lead to periodontal disease, an infection of the bone of the jaw.  Left untreated, dental disease leads to pain and a foul odor.  Also, the bacteria can enter the bloodstream and end up in the heart of kidneys, causing serious health problems.

Over time, the plaque becomes a rock-hard substance called calculus.  Once calculus is formed, special methods are required to safely and effectively remove it.  This is best accomplished by your veterinarian.  I’ll outline the general process here, although there will be some variation between veterinarians.

What does a dental cleaning involve?

Your veterinarian may recommend or require bloodwork prior to the procedure.  This is to ensure your pet is healthy enough for anesthesia or to identify any risks that can affect the anesthesia plan (drug choices, for example).

The first part of a dental cleaning is a through exam of your pet’s mouth.  The space between the teeth and gums is probed with a measuring tool, any pockets are identified.  The findings of the oral exam are frequently recorded on a chart in the patient’s record, which can be used for comparison in the future.  The calculus is then removed above and below the gum line with an ultrasonic scaler, an instrument that uses high frequency vibration to clean the teeth.  After scaling, a polisher is used to smooth the microscopic scratches made by the scaler.

The dental disease may have progressed to the point where a tooth needs to be extracted (pulled).  Usually this is when the attachment to the surrounding tissue is so far gone that the tooth is mobile (loose), or if a large amount of the tooth’s root is exposed.  The reasoning behind removing the tooth is that the connection to the surrounding tissue will not return, and it is better to eliminate the site of infection and discomfort than to allow it to progress further.  Dogs and cats can continue to eat dry good even after having multiple extractions.

Dental cleaning is usually an outpatient procedure, meaning pets are able to go home the same day.  Some may require soft food for a day or so if there were extractions, but after that they can return to normal activity.

I frequently receive questions from clients regarding general anesthesia (where the pet is “asleep”) during dentals and why it is required.  There are several reasons.  First, dental instruments must be sharp to be used properly.  These sharp tools could potentially injure your pet or the veterinarian if the patient is not immobilized.  Second, the plaque should be removed below the gum line when necessary.  This cannot be done with an awake animal.  Removing just the plaque you can see is a cosmetic procedure only, allowing an infection below the gum line to spread.  Third, when removing dental plaque, there is a risk of inhaling water or bacteria fragments, which could lead to pneumonia.  When under anesthesia, the pet’s airway is protected by an endotracheal tube.  Human’s don’t require anesthesia for similar procedures because we’ll lie there motionless, mouth open, holding our breath when needed.  That’s asking a lot of even the most well-behaved dog or cat.

Call your veterinarian to discuss his or her recommendations for dental cleaning and your pet’s oral health in general.  A dental cleaning may be needed to help make your pet happier and healthier.  And getting rid of that doggie breath is a nice bonus.

-Dr. Ian Birkbeck   Birkbeck

Dr. Birkbeck writes monthly columns for the local publication, “The Viera Voice”.  If you have any pet medical questions you would like to see answered in a future column, you can email them to

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