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FAQs- Pet Dentistry

Frequently Asked Dental Care Questions and Their Answers

 Healthy Mouth = Healthier Life

Each year, February is designated as Pet Dental Health month. We all promote pet dental health awareness campaigns. February isn't the only time to think about good oral health though. Keeping your pet's teeth and gums in good shape has many health benefits in addition to the sparkling fresh breath. Now is the time to schedule that checkup for your pet to ensure the best dental health possible.

My pet has bad breath. Are bad teeth and gums the cause?

Most likely, YES. However, it is very important to schedule a visit to the veterinarian. In rare cases, some diseases or situations can cause bad breath in the absence of, or in addition to, tooth/gum disease. Conditions such as kidney failure, diabetes, nasal or facial skin infections, cancers, or situations where the animal is ingesting feces or other materials, can cause bad breath with or without periodontal disease.

What actually causes the bad breath when tooth/gum disease is present?

Bad breath, medically known as "halitosis", results from the bacterial infection of the gums (gingiva) and supporting tissues seen with periodontal disease (periodontal = occurring around a tooth).

What is the difference between plaque and tartar?

Plaque  is a colony of bacteria, mixed with saliva, blood cell, and other bacterial components. Plaque often leads to tooth and gum disease. Dental tartar, or calculus, occurs when plaque becomes mineralized (hard) and firmly adheres to the tooth enamel then erodes the gingival tissue.

What is Periodontal disease?

Periodontal disease is an infection of the tissue surrounding the teeth that takes hold in progressive stages. It starts out as a bacterial film called plaque. The bacteria attach to the teeth. When the bacteria die they can be calcified by calcium in saliva. This forms a hard, rough substance called tartar or calculus which allows more plaque to accumulate. Initially, plaque is soft and brushing or chewing hard food and toys can dislodge it. If left to spread, plaque can lead to gingivitis, an inflammation of the gums, causing them to become red and swollen and to bleed easily. As plaque and calculus develop below the gum line, professional cleaning will be needed to help manage it. If the plaque and tartar buildup continues unchecked, infection can form around the root of the tooth. In the final stages of periodontal disease, the tissues surrounding the tooth are destroyed, the bony socket holding the tooth in erodes and the tooth becomes loose. This is a very painful process for your four-legged friend, but these problems can be averted before they even start.

What can happen if my pet's teeth aren't cleaned?

Both plaque and tartar damage the teeth and gums. Disease starts with the gums (gingiva). They become inflamed - red, swollen, and sore. The gums finally separate from the teeth, creating pockets where more bacteria, plaque, and tartar build up. This in turn causes more damage, and finally tooth and bone loss.

"Without proper dental care, 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats show signs of oral disease by age three."

This affects the whole body, too. Bacteria from these inflamed oral areas can enter the bloodstream and affect major body organs. The liver, kidneys, heart, and lungs are most commonly affected. Antibiotics are used prior to and after a dental cleaning to prevent bacterial spread through the blood stream.

But my pet is only 3 years old! Isn't this an "old dog/cat disease"?

No - dental disease is NOT just for the senior pets

My pet doesn't seem like s/he is in any pain. Do they experience oral pain?

They may not verbalize or complain like a human would, but animals most likely feel pain with periodontal disease. The pain levels may be low, or very noticeable, and it varies with each animal. Obvious signs of oral pain may include: "chattering" teeth while eating or grooming, drooling, crying out, and refusing to eat.

My pet lost a tooth the other day. S/he seems fine. Do I need to do anything?

Yes - please see your veterinarian as soon as possible to check the pocket and other teeth. Exposed tissue can be very painful and are open to infection.

My vet has recommended a dental for my pet. What should l expect?

If your pet has a lot of periodontal disease, your vet will likely prescribe antibiotics for a few days prior to the dental. This will reduce the infection in the mouth and the spread of bacteria via the bloodstream. Pets need to be anesthetized for a full dental cleaning. Hand scaling tartar can be done while awake, but for a thorough oral exam and cleaning, animals must be anesthetized. Scaling tartar on an awake animal, without polishing the teeth, leaves a rough surface to the tooth, predisposing the tooth for more plaque and tartar accumulation, quicker. Most vets strongly urge pre-anesthetic blood work to ensure that everything else is OK with your pet.

*There are other options - such as root canals, crowns, etc.  Those are referred to a veterinary dental specialist.

Your pet will be anesthetized, any medications or fluids will be administered, and the vet or veterinary technician will scale the teeth, examine the gums (and any pockets), extract diseased teeth*, and polish the teeth. The equipment used on your pet's teeth is much like you would find in a human dental office.

How can I care for my pet's teeth at home?

It is important to use products specifically designed for dogs and cats. Do not use human toothpaste on your pet's teeth. Products are available for cats and for dogs. Your veterinarian or veterinary technician can show you the proper techniques for your pet. Some animals do well with a toothbrush, some do not. Other products include finger swabs, tooth 'cloths', and mouth rinses. Talk to your vet about what type of product would work best for your pet. Ideally, the teeth should be brushed daily, as with humans. Even once every few days will be a big help.

It is important to watch the treats, too. The soft, gummy treats can be especially bad for the teeth - they are soft, sticky, and full of sugar. Treats such as raw carrots for dogs are a much healthier choice. There are many "dental treats" on the market now to reduce plaque and tartar buildup.

How Often Should I Brush My Dog's Teeth?

Dental care for dogs is essential in maintaining your pet healthy. You need to reserve time for your dog's dental hygiene and visit the vet on a regular basis for a dental exam.

Ideally, a dog should get his teeth brushed once per day. If you cannot do that, try to brush your pet's teeth at least once in 2 days to prevent the buildup of plaque and tartar.

Can I Use Human Toothbrush or Toothpaste?

Use a special pet toothbrush or get a children's toothbrush.

Purchase some special pet toothpaste that will be appealing for your dog. The toothpastes for pets are meat or fish flavored.

Don't use your toothpaste for your dog.

Clients often ask, "doesn’t hard food keep teeth clean?"

 Some believe when their dog or cat chews on hard food or biscuits, mineral deposits are broken down and the teeth stay clean. This is not true. True, animals on soft diets accumulate plaque more readily than those on dry foods, but the only way to keep teeth clean above and below the gum line is by daily brushing.

When should I brush my dog's teeth?

It is estimated that over 2/3 of dogs over the age of three have periodontitis, an inflammation or infection of the tissues surrounding the teeth. Periodontal disease starts as gingivitis caused by plaque and often progresses to involve the bony tooth sockets. Left untreated, periodontal disease can lead to painful tooth loss.

When should I brush my dog's teeth?

Like us, it’s ideal to brush your dog's teeth at least twice daily. For many dogs, once brushing becomes a part of their routine they will begin to expect and enjoy it. Brushing twice a week is helpful if your schedule cannot accommodate daily brushing.

"It is best to teach your dog to accept tooth
brushing is while he or she is still a puppy."

It is best to teach your dog to accept tooth brushing while he or she is still a puppy. If you have an older dog, the training process may take a little longer but it’s worth the effort.

What steps do I need to follow to teach my dog to accept tooth brushing?

In order to be successful at brushing your dog's teeth, you must make it a positive experience for both of you. Make the experience positive by praising your dog throughout the whole procedure, with reassurance through every step.

For best results, follow these steps:

  • Choose a quiet time and place to begin.
  • If your dog is small enough, hold your dog securely in your lap with his head facing away from you. If your dog is larger, you should sit on a chair and have your dog sit beside you so that you can comfortably handle his mouth and teeth.
  • Start by rubbing your finger or a soft cloth over the outer surfaces of your dog's teeth, using a back-and-forth motion. Be careful to stay on the outside surfaces of the teeth to avoid being bitten by accident.
  • For the first few lessons, it is a good idea to rub the cloth along only a few teeth rather than the whole mouth, especially if your pet is unsure or nervous about the process.
  • Once the dog is comfortable with you rubbing his teeth, let him taste a little bit of pet toothpaste from your finger. Do not use human toothpaste – it is not designed to be swallowed.
  • Once your dog has accepted the taste of pet toothpaste, apply a small amount to the cloth and rub it over the teeth.
  • Once your dog is completely used to you rubbing his teeth with a cloth, it’s time to start using a toothbrush.

"Make the experience positive by praising your
dog throughout the whole procedure, with
reassurance through every step."

What type of toothbrush should I use?

Commercial toothbrushes are available that are specifically designed for use in dogs. These include:

  • brushes with angled handles,
  • brushes with multiple heads (so that you can simultaneously brush the inside, outside and top surfaces of the tooth),
  • small brushes that fit comfortably in your hand, and
  • finger toothbrushes (designed to fit over the tip of your finger).

For some dogs, it is acceptable to use a very soft toothbrush designed for use in human babies. 

The type of toothbrush you use depends a little on the size of your dog and a little on your own dexterity. Many pet owners find it easier to use a finger brush, especially when just beginning to brush their dog's teeth. Check with your veterinarian if you are uncertain of which brush to use.

Regardless of the type of toothbrush you use, it is important to be gentle and go slowly as it is easy to accidentally poke the tip of the toothbrush against the gums and cause some irritation.

Is it okay to use human toothpaste?

No. Human toothpastes contain ingredients that should not be swallowed. If it is swallowed, it can cause an upset stomach or digestive disturbances. Some human toothpastes contain high levels of sodium which may even injure your dog.  

My friend recommended that I use baking soda. Is this okay?

No. Baking soda has a high alkaline content and, if swallowed, it can upset the acid balance in the stomach and digestive tract. In addition, baking soda does not taste good which may cause your dog to be uncooperative when you try to brush his teeth.

Why is pet toothpaste recommended?

Pet toothpaste is available in a number of different flavors that are appetizing to dogs, including poultry, beef, malt and mint. By using a product that tastes good, your dog will be more likely to enjoy the whole experience.

Exactly how should I brush my dog's teeth?

Apply a small amount of toothpaste to the toothbrush. Gently raise your dog's lips on one side. You can either do this by pushing up on the lip with the index finger of your free hand (as shown in the diagram) or by placing your free hand over your dog's head with your thumb and index finger on opposite sides of your dog's upper jaw to lift his lips. 

1   2

To brush the lower teeth, you will need to open your dog's mouth a little. This can be done by gently tilting your dog's head backward while holding onto his or her upper jaw with the thumb and index finger of your free hand.

At the beginning, concentrate on brushing the large cheek teeth and the canine teeth, the teeth where plaque and tartar accumulate most quickly. Gradually work up to brushing all of the teeth (this will probably take several days or weeks). 

3  4

Do not worry about brushing the tips or insides of the teeth unless your dog is very cooperative. Most of the periodontal lesions occur on the outer surfaces of the teeth and this is where you should direct your efforts. In addition, the dog's tongue tends to remove a lot of the plaque from the inner surfaces of the teeth, reducing the need for brushing these surfaces. 


How long should I take to brush my dog's teeth?

Try to brush for approximately 30 seconds per side.

What else can I do to maintain my dog's dental health?

Plaque, also known as biofilm, is a gummy substance that begins to accumulate on the teeth within hours after a meal.  Within a day, plaque combines with minerals that are present in the saliva to become tartar.  A list of dental products and diets that have been accepted by the Veterinary Oral Health Counsel can be found on www.vohc.org.  These accepted prodcuts have been shown to decrease the accumulation of palque and/or tartar by atleast 20%.

Is there anything else I should know?

Yes. A dog's mouth contains plenty of harmful bacteria, so it is extremely important that you wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after you are finished. Also, rinse the toothbrush thoroughly before putting it away, and replace the toothbrush at least every other week. If you have several dogs, you should have a different toothbrush for each of them.

How Important is Kibble Food?

Kibble food may help removing the plaque from the dog's teeth. If your dog has a diet based on dry food, he is less likely to develop dental problems. However, if your dog has a wet diet, offer him chew treats and chew toys that will scrape the plaque off his teeth.

How to Prevent Bad Breath?

Bad breath, also known as halitosis, is caused by tooth decay or bacteria that may be located in your dog's mouth. Inspect your dog's mouth to make sure there are no dental abscesses. If your dog has no dental problems, bad breath may be prevented with dental chews that will freshen up his breath. You may also add a few drops of lemon juice in his drinking water.


Do I Need to Visit the Vet for Dental Care?

Even if you brush your dog's teeth daily, you still need to get a professional cleaning once or twice per year. The vet may also detect any incipient problems.

Why should I brush my pet's teeth?

Daily removal of plaque is the key to an effective oral hygiene program. Unless your pet's teeth are brushed daily, plaque, which is an accumulation of bacteria, will build up at the gum line. Eventually, calculus forms, further irritating the gums, causing infection that progress to destroy the attachment around your pet's teeth. In addition to creating loose teeth, infection under the gum line can spread to the liver, kidneys, and heart. 

When should I brush my cat's teeth?

Like us, cats need daily dental care to help decrease plaque and tartar accumulation. Teaching your cat to accept the brushing of his teeth will take some training, but it will be relatively easy once accustomed to the process. Daily brushing is most beneficial and will help to establish a routine. Brushing twice a week is helpful if your schedule cannot accommodate daily brushing. 

 "It is best to teach your cat to accept
brushing while he or she is still a kitten."

It is best to teach your cat to accept brushing while he or she is still a kitten. If you have an older cat, the process may take a little longer but it’s worth the effort.

What steps do I need to follow to teach my cat to accept tooth brushing?

  • Choose a quiet time and place to begin. Hold your cat securely in your lap or on a table.
  • Dip a Q-tip applicator into tuna water that was stored in the refrigerator and drained from a can of tuna fish. The tuna water does not have any beneficial dental effects, but most cats like the taste.

"Human toothpaste should not be used as it is
 designed to foam, and is not meant to be swallowed."

  • Place your cat’s head at a 45 degree angle and gently pull back his lips. His mouth can be closed.


  • Gently rub the applicator tip to the area where the gum meets the tooth.  This is where plaque accumulates. Only the outside surfaces need to be rubbed.

"The cat's abrasive tongue tends to remove plaque
from the inner surfaces of the teeth, reducing the
need for brushing these surfaces."

  • Do not worry about brushing the tips or insides of the teeth unless your cat is very cooperative. Most periodontal diseases occur on the outer surfaces of the teeth and this is where you should direct your efforts. The cat's abrasive tongue tends to remove plaque from the inner surfaces of the teeth, reducing the need for brushing these surfaces.


  • Gradually work up to brushing all of the teeth (this will probably take several days or weeks). Make sure you reach the big teeth at the back of the mouth.


How often does my pet need to have its teeth cleaned by the veterinarian?

It depends on the degree of plaque and tartar accumulation. Examine your pet's teeth monthly. Look for an accumulation of yellow or brown material at the area where the tooth meets the gum line. Pay particular attention to the check teeth and canines.

Once you notice plaque or tartar accumulation, it is time for a professional cleaning. Do not wait. Attached to the tartar are bacteria that are irritating gum tissues. When treated, inflammation will be resolved. When gingivitis is left untreated, it will progress to periodontitis, which is nonreversible.

The intervals between teeth-cleaning procedures will depend on how often you can brush your pet's teeth. Once daily is optimum. If you cannot brush your pet's teeth consider a special diet by Hills called T/D. This food has an oversized kibble your pet must bite, resulting in a wiping effect on the whole tooth.

Can I just take my fingernail or a dental scaler to remove calculus?

Dental disease occurs below the gum line. By removing calculus from the visible part of the tooth, you are not removing disease below the gum line. In order to help your pet, plaque and calculus must be removed from below the gum line.


Do you have to use anesthetics to clean my pet's teeth?

Anesthesia is necessary when performing teeth cleaning. Anesthesia provides three important functions: immobilization in order to clean below the gum line, pain control and the ability to place a tube into the windpipe so bacterial products do not enter the respiratory system.

I am concerned about anesthesia. Is it safe?

We take every effort to ensure anesthetics are safely administered. We use the safest of anesthetic agents. All dogs and cats are given preoperative test, depending on their age and condition, to qualify then as candidates for anesthesia. Finally, while anesthetized, all animals are monitored with pulse oximeter and respiratory monitor.

How much does a tooth-cleaning procedure cost?

It is difficult to quote what the procedure will cost because we do not know what state your pet's teeth and gums are in. There are three levels of teeth cleanings at our hospital. The range of fees is based on severity plus fees for preoperative testing, anesthesia, necessary therapy, and medication. The doctor or staff will be happy to give you an estimate once you bring your dog or cat in for the examination. We offer no charge dental exam & provide written estimate.

What is best to feed my pet?

There are special diets specifically manufactured to help keep dogs' and cats' teeth clean (Hills T/D). Feeding these special diets in conjunction with regular brushing is the best way to keep the teeth clean. Diet alone will not control plaque, but it will help.

What toys should I avoid to protect my pet's teeth?

Chewing on objects harder than the tooth may lead to dental fractures. Be especially careful with cow and horse hooves. They commonly cause fractures of the upper check teeth. Do not play tug-of-war games, especially with young dogs and cats, because they can move growing teeth to abnormal locations. Throwing dogs Frisbees can also cause trauma to the teeth resulting in pulpitis (discolored teeth).

What are cat cavities?

Many cats get painful lesions at the gum line that invade the teeth. The lesions are referred to as feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions (FORLs). Recent research indicates that in cats over 5 years of age there is a 72% chance he or she may have a FORL.

How can I tell if my pet is suffering from periodontal disease?

The leading sign is bad breath. Dogs and cats should not have disagreeable mouth odor. Bad breath comes from infection. If your pet's breath does not smell like roses, let us examine its mouth and advise care.

What types of tests are done to diagnose dental disease?

If periodontal disease is present or if your pet has a fractured tooth, an oral exam is performed while the pet is under anesthesia. A periodontal probe is used to evaluate bone loss around each tooth. Radiographs are taken to evaluate if teeth can be saved or need to be extracted.

When do I have to start worrying about dental problems with my pet?

As soon as puppy or kitten teeth emerge, it's time to start brushing. Although baby teeth are replaced with adult teeth, the puppy or kitten gets used to the brushing procedure, which continues for life.

What can be done if my pet has periodontal disease?

Periodontal disease occurs when tooth support structures are affected by infection. In the beginning stages, cleaning above and below the gum line as well as removal of calculus attached to the tooth will help restore periodontal health. In advanced cases, either periodontal surgery or extractions are performed. Antibiotics given monthly also help to control the progression of periodontal disease.

Which animals are at the most risk for periodontal disease?

Smaller breeds are more prone than larger because the teeth are closer together in small dogs, and these dogs usually live longer. Terriers, Maltese, Schnauzer, Cocker spaniels, and Shih Tzus are especially prone to periodontal disease.

What can you do to fix a broken tooth?

If your dog or cat breaks its tooth, there are two treatments: root canal therapy to save the tooth or extraction. Leaving the tooth alone with an exposed nerve is not a humane option. In addition to pain, infection will develop, which can spread to vital organs.


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