Take Your Pet to the Dentist


It is recommended that we humans see the dentist at least once per year. The same can be said for your dog and cat. Dental health is an important aspect of your pet’s overall well-being. We brush several times per day, decreasing the amount of plaque that builds up on our teeth. Our dogs and cats do not have this capability. Ancestral dogs and cats used to have a rougher diet, leading to less build-up, but even they had dental disease.

While your pet should be examined by a veterinarian once per year, you should see your vet earlier if you note any of the following problems:

  • broken or loose teeth
  • baby teeth that have not fallen out by eight months of age
  • bad breath
  • pain in or around the mouth
  • swellings on the face or in the mouth
  • masses or growths in the mouth
  • heavy tartar on teeth or discolored teeth
  • unusual drooling, dropping of food when eating
  • atypical chewing and discomfort when chewing

Pets may have dental problems that are not readily apparent. Remember that a tooth is like an iceberg: most of it is invisible, under the gumline. If a pet is uncomfortable, not eating well, and simply not themselves, they may be experiencing oral pain.

Regular cavities, as seen in people, are less frequent, but periodontal disease is common in pets by age three. If not addressed early, it will worsen and cause discomfort and tooth loss. Poor dental hygiene may also lead to other systemic problems such as kidney disease, heart problems, urinary infections, and overall poor health.

Veterinary dentistry is much more than simply removing visible tartar. It includes having trained individuals examine and clean teeth, remove damaged teeth, evaluate the oral structures, assess overall health, and form a plan to keep your pet healthy. In certain cases even root canals can be performed.

After an examination of your pet’s mouth, the veterinarian may recommend a sedated oral examination and cleaning. Sedation is frequently necessary. Your dentist will administer techniques to minimize pain and will ask you routinely if you are comfortable. You are also capable of understanding what is happening and will hold still for procedures. Your furry friend does not understand what is happening and may move, be in discomfort, hurt themselves, or even bite. Anesthesia, applied safely, allows the veterinarian to perform efficiently, safely, and effectively. The benefit of a sedated exam far outweighs the risks in most patients.

After a thorough visual examination of the mouth, the veterinarian will take x-rays of the teeth and may find that a tooth’s root has been broken, decayed, or otherwise compromised. The tooth usually needs to be removed. Any other affected teeth will be identified and repaired if possible or removed if too diseased to be saved.

Pets are not vain and will not miss an extracted tooth. It is better to be missing a tooth than to have a diseased tooth remain in the mouth! Sutures may be placed to close any defects. The doctor will then clean the teeth, polish them, rinse the mouth, and perform one last inspection. Pain medication and antibiotics may be sent home as well. Your pet will wake up quickly but may be a bit groggy for the remainder of the day.

In an article last year I discussed home care for keeping teeth as clean as possible. A quick rehash follows. Daily brushing is the best way to prevent plaque and tartar buildup. Having the groomer brush the teeth once every few months is not effective. Slowly accustom your furry friend to tooth brushing. This is not something that most readily accept, so it may take some patience. Use dog/cat-safe toothpaste (human toothpaste contains too much fluoride). Giving dogs and cats chew toys also helps limit tartar buildup, but hard bones can lead to tooth fractures.

We have seen many dogs and cats with chronic illnesses and bad teeth. Once we address the periodontal or tooth disease, we find a dramatic improvement in quality of life. Teeth are an important part of the body and should not be neglected. See your veterinarian once a year for an exam and remember to discuss oral and tooth health. As always, please let us know how we can be of help.


Dan Teich, DVM, is at District Veterinary Hospital, 3748 10th St. NE, Washington, DC 20017; 202-827-1230 and desk@districtvet.com.