February is National Pet Dental Health Month


According to the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC), periodontal disease is the most common clinical condition occurring in adult cats and dogs. It is estimated that nearly 70 percent of cats and 80 percent of dogs are diagnosed with oral health problems by age three.

The problem begins when bacteria in the mouth begins to stick to teeth. This is called plaque. As minerals in saliva harden the plaque, 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 very basis of auto-immune disease).

Obvious signs of dental problems include:

  • Bad breath

  • Difficulty chewing

  • Pain while chewing

  • Drooling

  • Blood in the mouth

  • Pawing at the face

  • Discolored teeth

  • Red gums

  • Redness along the gum line

Periodontal Disease is Preventable

Diet can play a major role in preventing periodontal disease.

There is a misconception that dry pet food keeps the teeth and gums healthy. Unfortunately, the exact opposite is true. The starches in dry food adhere to teeth, creating the perfect breeding ground for bacteria to grow. Even grain-free dry food is loaded with starch, as it is what holds kibble together.

A raw food diet is actually most beneficial for a pet's 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.

Raw bones are also very helpful in keeping teeth clean. It is important to provide an appropriate sized piece of bone for your pet's size. For example, a piece of chicken neck bone around the size of a thumb is suitable for cats and small dogs. Large dogs do well with bison knuckles. It is equally important to supervise your pet when they chew on the bones. Please note: never give your pet a cooked bone - it can splinter and cause damage if ingested.

Easy Oral Care

If raw meat and bones are not up your alley, there are other ways to keep your pet's mouth healthy:

Brush Your Pet's Teeth

This can be done 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 either a finger brush or toothbrush made especially for pets. Just brush one tooth. Work your way up from there! You don't even need toothpaste - brushing daily can prevent bacteria from sticking to the teeth.

There are a number of toothpastes for pets (never use toothpaste meant for humans on your cat or dog).

Brushless Gels, Sprays, Liquids and Powders

There are also many enzyme-based dental products that work quite well for most cats and dogs. The enzymes help prevent bacteria/plaque build up on the teeth. PetzLife Oral Care Gel (or spray), Oratene, PlaqueOff by ProDen, Breathless Plaque Zapper by Ark Naturals are all highly effective for most pets.

Certain Pets Are Predisposed to Excessive Tartar Build-up

According to Karen Becker, DVM, Some raw fed pets that also chew raw bones still accumulate tartar on their teeth.

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, and kitties can present a special challenge because they don’t typically gnaw on bones like dogs do. Offering a skinless chicken neck may entice your cat to chew more, and provide enough mechanical abrasion to keep her teeth free from plaque build up.

Yearly Dental Exams

One of the reasons it is so important to bring your cat or dog in for an annual exam is that it gives your vet an opportunity to exam the teeth, gums and whole mouth. The earlier an issue is caught, the better.

If a professional cleaning is advised, blood work will be run to make sure your pet is healthy enough for anesthesia. The actual cleaning is a very thorough process. Not only will the vet remove plaque and tartar from the teeth and under the gum line, a full examination of the gums and entire oral cavity is also 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.

All adult cats should undergo dental X-rays, as they are especially susceptible to a painful disease known as Odontoclastic Resorption/Tooth Resorption. This is the gradual destruction of a tooth or teeth caused by cells called odontoclasts. It usually starts on the outside of the tooth at the gum line, appearing as skin overgrowth or obvious lesions. Although most common in the lower jaw, resorption can occur in any tooth.

This extremely painful dental disease affects approximately 40 percent of healthy adult cats. Between 60 and 80 percent of cats that visit the veterinarian for treatment of dental disease suffer from tooth resorption. Tooth resorption is also referred to as:

  • Cervical line lesions

  • Resorptive lesions

  • Feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions (FORLs)

  • Cavities (which is inaccurate and misleading)

  • An exact cause for tooth resorption has not yet been identified. There may be a link between high levels of vitamin D in a cat's system and tooth resorption.


Cats are notorious for hiding their pain. That is why it is so important for guardians to recognize signs of oral discomfort:

  • Difficulty eating

  • Chewing only on one side of the mouth

  • Bleeding from the mouth

  • Drooling / excessive salivation

  • Bad breath

  • Behavioral changes (no longer wanting to play or cuddle, crabbiness)

If your cat or dog is exhibiting any signs of dental disease, including yellow teeth or red gums, please consult with your veterinarian. During the month of February, many veterinary practices are offering special discounted pricing on dental exams and cleanings.

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