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February is National Pet Dental Health Month

Cartoon image of a cat holding dental tools and getting ready to examine a patient
February is National Pet Dental Health Month

Did you know that oral health is important for overall health? This is true for us humans and our pets.

The sad fact is that by the age of three, nearly all dogs and cats show evidence of periodontal issues. That is why the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) established February as National Pet Dental Health Month.

Designed to encourage pet parents to have annual dental examinations performed on their cats and dogs, National Pet Dental Health Month has spent more than a decade bringing awareness about prevention and early treatment for dental concerns.

How to Encourage Good Oral Health

Diet can play a significant role in preventing dental disease.

For many pets, raw food can be beneficial for their dental health. Raw meat contains enzymes that are helpful in breaking down plaque and tartar. Be sure to feed a bio-appropriate raw diet that contains the proper ratio of meat, vitamins, minerals, and fats. There are several excellent commercial foods, as well as easy to follow homemade recipes for cats and dogs.

Brush your pet’s teeth.

Aim for daily or at least a few times per week. Some pets actually enjoy it! The key is to start slowly by getting your cat or dog used to the feel of your finger against their teeth. After that, try either a finger brush or toothbrush made especially for pets. Just brush one tooth. Work your way up from there! There are a number of kinds of toothpaste for pets (never use toothpaste meant for humans on your cat or dog). There are also many enzyme-based dental products, including brushless gels, sprays, liquids, and powders that work quite well for most cats and dogs.

If your pet will not tolerate toothpaste, brushing daily with a little water can help prevent bacteria from sticking to the teeth.

Some Pets Are Predisposed to Excessive Tartar Build-up

Brachycephalic (short-nosed) and toy breeds are often predisposed because their teeth don’t have normal alignment, and in the case of tiny dogs, there’s often a crowding problem. No matter how vigorously these dogs chew, it doesn’t remove all the plaque and tartar from their teeth.

Pets with chronic health conditions also seem to collect more tartar on their teeth. This could be due to less vigorous chewing, or it could be the result of changes in saliva quantity, gum health, the pH in the mouth, or other causes.

Many cats are also predisposed to have more tartar on their teeth. They can present a special challenge because they don’t typically gnaw on bones as dogs do. Offering a skinless, raw chicken neck may entice your cat to chew more, and provide enough mechanical abrasion to keep her teeth free from plaque build-up.

A Sneaky Way Oral Health Is Compromised

Many pet parents believe offering a kibble diet is a proactive approach to keeping teeth clean. This is a dangerous myth. In fact, the bacteria from starches in dry food (even grain-free dry food is loaded with starch) actually adhere to teeth, paving the way for bacteria (plaque) to stick. Once this hardens, it becomes tartar.

When plaque and tartar spread under the gum line (not visible), they begin to secrete toxins that damage tissue. The bacteria also stimulate the immune system causing inflammation. As white blood cells rush to destroy the bacteria invading the mouth, they become overwhelmed, releasing chemicals that can actually cause more damage.

The resulting tooth decay does more than affect the mouth - it can lead to serious chronic conditions including diseases of the gut and bowel, kidney, liver, and heart. Tooth decay can also contribute to joint problems.

Signs your pet may have periodontal issues

  • Bad breath (doggy breath is not normal!)

  • Irritated gumline

  • Loose teeth

  • Discolored teeth

  • Bleeding from the mouth

  • Loss of appetite

  • Frequent pawing at the face or rubbing the face on furniture or the floor

If your pet is suffering from any of these symptoms, it is important it is to schedule an appointment with a vet so that their teeth, gums, and whole mouth can be examined. The earlier an issue is caught, the better.

If a professional cleaning is advised, blood work will be suggested to make sure your pet's organs are healthy enough for anesthesia. Many people are concerned with how anesthesia can affect their pet. There are very strict protocols in place for dental cleanings to help ensure your pet stays safe throughout the procedure.

Cleaning under anesthesia is a very thorough process. Not only will the vet remove plaque and tartar from the teeth and under the gum line, but a full examination of the gums and entire oral cavity will also be conducted.

While your pet is under anesthesia, dental radiographs (x-rays) can also be taken. This will allow the vet to assess the bone level around the teeth. It is the best way to determine if extractions or other oral surgery is necessary.

Note: Be sure the veterinarian you are considering is an expert in dental care and that they follow the protocols set forth by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

To find a board certified veterinary dental specialist, visit the American Veterinary Dental College site.

For more pet health and lifestyle information, please visit



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