Close-up of dog's mouth
“Dogs and cats do not have self-cleaning teeth,” Dr. Bernadine Cruz of Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in Laguna Woods, California, says. “If their teeth are not taken care of properly, a large percentage of pets will have some type of dental disease by 4 years of age.”

Dental woes are more than just a toothache; they can also pose a serious threat to your pet’s well-being. That is because the condition of your pet’s teeth and gums can directly affect her overall health. Read on to learn about the top four signs of poor dental hygiene and the best ways to combat them.

1. Bad Breath

How often have you gotten eye to eye with a furry friend only to be put off by her breath? We usually explain away a pet’s bad breath as simply being “dog breath” or “cat breath,” as if it is a normal part of her being. However, unless your pet has just eaten something stinky such as tuna, it is important to recognize that bad breath is not normal and can indicate a problem with her dental health.

2. Discolored Teeth

Healthy canine and feline teeth are white. Any discolorations or stains should be examined by your veterinary team. In addition, buildup or darker areas on your pet’s teeth, particularly around the gumline, is another sign that something isn’t right with her dental health.

3. Red, Swollen or Bleeding Gums

Healthy gums are pink (although some breeds have pigmented gums). Gums that are red and swollen or are bleeding need attention.

4. Loose Teeth

Unless your pet’s jaw has been injured, loose teeth can be an indication of bone loss. You can determine if teeth are loose by gently pressing on them. But do so carefully, as this can be painful and even the most docile pet may bite.

What’s the Problem?

All of the above problems can be signs of periodontal disease, a disease that attacks the gums and teeth and can cause potentially life-threatening infections. Here is how it happens: Plaque builds up on your pet’s teeth. If it is not brushed away within 24 to 36 hours, it hardens into a yellow or brown substance called tartar, which can be removed only by a veterinarian (ideally, while the pet is under anesthesia). Over time, tartar that remains on your pet’s teeth also builds up under the gums. Tartar and bacteria eventually separate the gums from the teeth, forming gaps or pockets that encourage even more bacterial growth. At later stages of the disease, surgery may be needed to repair the damage, and affected teeth may need to be pulled.

Periodontal disease is painful for your pet and can lead to abscesses and loss of bone and teeth. It also presents other health risks. “If left untreated, dental disease can spread infection throughout the body,” Dr. Cruz explains. "When the health of the gums is compromised, the bacteria can get into the bloodstream and cause infection in your pet’s liver, lungs, kidneys and heart.”

Prevention Is the Key

The good news is that you can combat periodontal disease in your pet. Caring for her dental health really comes down to three simple steps:

  • Have your pet’s teeth cleaned professionally by your veterinarian on a regular basis.
  • Brush your pet’s teeth daily to help reduce the buildup of plaque.
  • Pay attention to your pet’s dental health. Check on her teeth and her gums regularly.

Visit Your Veterinarian

The first step in ensuring that your pet’s teeth are taken care of is to take her for professional dental cleanings.

For pets with healthy teeth and gums, cleanings are usually done about once a year. Pets that have severe periodontal disease may require more frequent visits. Your veterinarian will recommend a cleaning schedule based on your pet’s needs. Every pet is unique when it comes to dental disease. “Genetics, breed and luck all play a part in how often you will need to have your pet’s teeth professionally cleaned,” Dr. Cruz says.

One method of cleaning is to use an ultrasonic scaler. Its metal tip moves quickly and vibrates, using a stream of water to remove debris and plaque off teeth. Similar to what happens during a trip to your own dentist, your pet’s teeth will be cleaned both above and below the gumline and then polished.

Your veterinarian may recommend anesthesia for the procedure, because most pets will not sit still for their teeth to be cleaned under the gumline. Your veterinary staff will take plenty of precautions to make undergoing anesthesia as risk free as possible for your pet.

Your veterinarian may perform a preanesthetic exam and will most likely recommend a blood profile screening, which can help rule out preexisting problems that could affect the safety of anesthesia. In addition, today’s anesthesia is safer for dogs and cats. Recent clinical advances in anesthesia help ensure that your pet will be alert and virtually back to normal shortly after the cleaning.

Cleaning at Home

Home care is an essential part of keeping your pet’s teeth in tip-top shape. “The best time to start a dental routine is when you first bring home a puppy or kitten,” Dr. Cruz explains. “Your first goal is just to get her used to having her teeth and gums touched.”

Start by simply wiping your pet’s teeth with a damp washcloth wrapped around your finger. Offer your pet lots of praise for being cooperative. After she has gotten used to the washcloth, she can graduate to a pet-safe toothbrush. This method can also work on an older pet that has not previously received home dental care.

Once you are ready to start brushing your pet’s teeth, you will need two essentials:

  • Toothpaste specially formulated for pets. Pet toothpaste comes in all kinds of interesting flavors, including vanilla, beef, chicken and seafood. Avoid using human toothpaste, which can irritate your pet’s stomach if she swallows it.
  • A toothbrush. One that has been specially developed for pets (e.g., a little rubber finger brush for cats, a smaller brush for small dogs) is your best bet. You can always ask your veterinarian for advice on making the brushing experience a positive one for you and your four-legged friend.
You will find that regular professional cleanings, as well as the simple act of daily brushing, will help keep your pet’s teeth and gums healthier throughout her life. A little extra care in the short run will lead to important health benefits for years to come.

Toothbrushing Tips

  • Dampen the toothbrush first.
  • Press the toothpaste down to the bottom of the brush. This will help keep your pet from licking the toothpaste off the brush.
  • Take your time introducing this new routine into your pet’s life.

Fighting Dental Disease With Food

Diet can play a role in maintaining your pet’s dental health. Specially formulated dental diets are effective in fighting plaque and tartar buildup. For added assurance, look for the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s (VOHC) Seal of Acceptance. You can also ask your veterinary staff which diet they recommend.

More on Vetstreet: