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Dental Disease in Dogs and Cats

Dental Disease in Dogs and Cats

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Ingleburn Veterinary Hospital
Unit 4, 2 Noonan Road
NSW 2565

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02 9829 1947

Ingleburn Veterinary Emergency Centre
Unit 4, 2 Noonan Road
NSW 2565

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02 9829 1628


Dental Disease in Dogs and Cats


Dental disease is one of the most common problems in dogs and cats, but it often goes undetected.  When was the last time you looked in your pet’s mouth?

The problem is plaque, the layer of bacteria and food particles that forms on the teeth.  Tartar develops when this calcifies and hardens.  Plaque causes gingivitis – infection of the gums.  Left untreated, it leads to periodontitis, where the infection gets into the tooth roots and damages the ligaments and bones that support the teeth.  Eventually tooth loss occurs.  Bacteria can also enter the bloodstream and cause other problems including heart and kidney disease.

What are the signs of tooth and gum disease?

  • Yellow or brown stains on the teeth (tartar)
  • Redness of the gums (gingivitis), especially at the tooth/gum margins.
  • Dribbling and/or bad breath!
  • Sometimes painful gums or loose teeth.
  • Reluctance to eat or difficulty eating.


What can you do to prevent this?


Fortunately, this common disease is usually preventable.  There are lots of things that you can do to make sure that your pet maintains healthy teeth and gums.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Learn to check your pet’s teeth regularly (including the back teeth).

-       Normal healthy teeth should be clean and white, and the gums should be uniformly pink all the way to the tooth margins. 

-       A yellow discolouration of the teeth is an indication of tartar build-up and should not be ignored for too long.

-       Redness of the gums, a thick build-up of tartar on the teeth, or bad breath all indicate more advanced disease and mean that it’s time to see the vet – as soon as possible.

  • Feed raw bones 2-3 times per week.  This is the most natural way to clean the teeth.  See the next section “Feed more bones!” for more details.
  • Have your vet check the teeth at least once a year (we will do this as part of your pet's annual examination and vaccination).  If necessary, we will recommend appropriate treatment to restore your pet’s teeth and gums to good health.  The reverse side of this information sheet details some of the Veterinary Dental Procedures available.
  • Try brushing or one of the various products available to minimise the build-up of plaque and tartar.  See Home Dental Care Products overleaf.

Feed more bones!

Feeding your dog or cat raw bones at least 2-3 times every week is perhaps the most important thing you can do to ensure the health of their teeth and gums. Chewing through bone and cartilage, and tearing the meat off the bone, exercises and cleans the entire tooth, right up to the gum line.  Normal dry food will not clean your pet's teeth.  Raw meaty bones can be given to cats or dogs. The size of the bone should vary according to the size of the pet. Soft bones such as lamb or veal are preferable. We advise NOT to feed raw chicken bones or necks.

Many butchers will sell bags of raw bones for a reasonable cost. Feeding the bones with some raw meat on is OK, but good hygiene is important.  Never feed cooked bones, unless you’re certain that your pet will just gnaw off the meat and leave the bone.  They are of less benefit to the teeth and can create problems such as constipation or even intestinal obstruction.

Whilst it is still possible for raw bones to become lodged in your pet’s mouth, this is uncommon, and easily fixed.  So don’t be afraid to feed raw bones.  You should avoid large hard bones like beef femurs, and any split long bones, which can sometimes fracture the teeth.

Some pets are reluctant to eat bones.  This is usually because they’ve been spoiled with canned and dry pet foods, and have become fussy! 

Here’s some tips to try:

  • Flavour the bones by mixing them with some of your pet’s favourite canned food, or lightly searing them in the pan juices from your own cooking.  You can even warm them in the microwave, but don’t cook them right through.
  • Let your pet go hungry for a while until it eats the bones.  Dogs and cats don’t have to eat every day, and lots of pets could afford to lose some weight!

Raw bones and dental care products are important for the prevention of dental disease. 

But they may not remove existing tartar.  This often requires veterinary treatment.

 Our failure to feed bones regularly is one of the main reasons why tartar and dental disease is so common in our pets.  It affects 85% of all dogs and cats over three years of age.  But it doesn’t have to be that way!


Veterinary Dental Procedures

Regular examination, a good diet and home dental care are the fundamentals of good tooth and gum care.  But sometimes this just isn’t enough.  To give your pet’s teeth a clean start, they may need to be scaled and polished.  Here is what’s involved:

Antibiotics will often be prescribed, to kill the plaque bacteria immediately before, during and after the clean.  Anti-inflammatories and pain-relievers are also given where necessary.

Anaesthesia is required to properly clean and polish your pet’s teeth.  Anaesthesia is very safe and all animals are examined and assessed first.  All patients have a tube placed in their throat that administers medical oxygen and anaesthetic gases throughout the procedure.  Older and high-risk patients are offered blood and urine tests and the use of alternative drugs to ensure their safety.  Please talk to one of our vets for more details.

Scaling of the plaque from the tooth is done with an ultrasonic scaler that vibrates and breaks up the tartar without damage to the tooth.  All tooth surfaces are carefully scaled, both inside and out.

After mechanical scaling is complete, hand scalers are used to complete the removal of plaque and tartar from below the gum line.  This is termed root planing and subgingival curettage.

Polishing.  After scaling, the tooth can still have a rough surface that allows the re-attachment of plaque.  At Ingleburn we have a variable speed dental polishing unit and use polishing paste that can restore a smooth healthy surface to the teeth, both above and below the gum line.

Extractions are often required where the tooth cannot be saved.  The tooth may be broken, the roots may be rotten, the enamel may be too badly eroded, or the gums, bones and other supporting structures may be too far gone to continue to support the tooth.  We are equipped with professional equipment including high-speed dental cutting burrs, elevators, forceps and root picks for such procedures.

Sometimes it is only possible to decide if a tooth can be saved, after the tartar has been removed.  Occasionally, whether to extract a tooth or try to save it may even be influenced by the owner’s ability or willingness to keep the teeth and gums clean at home. Where brushing at home is not possible, it may be better to extract a tooth to ensure the health of the rest of the mouth.

Other procedures include dental X-rays, endodontics, root canal treatments, etc.  We can discuss these more advanced procedures and arrange a referral if necessary.

Dental records are kept concerning the procedures performed, any teeth extracted, and any other abnormalities that are noted at the time.  A re-check will generally be scheduled in 3-12 months, depending on our examination findings.  


Home Dental Care Products

Plaque can be controlled by either mechanical or chemical means.  Mechanical methods physically clean the teeth by brushing or rubbing.  Chemical products help to control plaque, usually by killing the bacteria.  No one product will be the answer for every pet, but we can help you select the product(s) that are best for you and your pet’s needs.

Mechanical Plaque Control:


Tooth brushing is perhaps the most effective form, but it is dependent on a cooperative pet and a patient owner! Human toothpastes are unsuitable, due to their taste, foaming action and high fluoride content.  They are not meant to be swallowed.  We have toothpaste designed specifically for animals that comes in a poultry flavour that most pets will accept.  We also have finger brushes - thimble-like brushes that are much easier to control inside the mouth of cats and small dogs. Small toothbrushes with very soft bristles are OK for larger dogs. To get your pet used to brushing, it is wise to start with just your finger (perhaps flavoured with food), then try a bit of toothpaste, then finally start using the brush.  You only need to brush the outside of each tooth as the tongue adequately cleans the inside.  Be patient – it can sometimes take weeks or even months until your pet will let you clean their whole mouth in one sitting.  Your pet’s teeth should be brushed at least 4-5 times per week.

Diet is an important part of dental care.  Bones have already been discussed.  Many people think that dry food will clean their pet’s teeth.  It won’t.  Dry foods break too readily and clean only the tip of the teeth, not right up to the gum line where the problem lies.  There’s nothing wrong with feeding your pet good quality canned or dry commercial pet food, in fact we advise this for all of our patients, but it won’t clean their teeth.

Hill’s T/D Diet is different.  The physical structure of the kibble means that your pet must really chew/bite each biscuit.  It also provides some chemical cleaning as well and can reduce plaque/tartar build-up by up to 60%.

Artificial Chews and Bones are another option.  These are usually made from rawhide or pigs ears. We do not advise feeding hard nylon bones.

Chemical plaque control:


We stock a product called Plaque off that can help to reduce plaque and bad breath.  It is suitable for animals that will not chew or allow brushing.  It is sprinkled onto the food and is suitable for both dogs and cats.

Antibiotics can be prescribed by your veterinarian in cases of moderate to severe periodontitis and gingivitis.  They kill bacteria on the teeth and gums, but are not a cure in themselves.  They are often used in combination with other veterinary dental procedures.

If you have any other questions about tooth and gum care, please ask.  Or bring your pet in, and we can examine their mouth and work out the most appropriate solution for your pet’s problem(s).