If Your Pet Could Talk, He'd Tell You About This Hidden Pain

pet dental health

Story at-a-glance -

  • Most dogs and cats (70 to 80 percent) have gum disease by the age of 3; the very best way to prevent your pet from becoming a statistic is daily teeth brushing
  • Tartar buildup on your dog’s or cat’s teeth can lead to more serious problems, including irreversible gum damage and even heart disease
  • There are many signs of mouth pain and dental or gum disease in pets; since our dogs and cats can’t talk to us, it’s important to know what to look for
  • The right diet and supplements, recreational raw bones, daily teeth brushing, and regular at-home and professional mouth inspections will go a long way toward keeping your pet’s mouth healthy throughout his or her life

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

When it comes to your furry companion’s oral health, it’s important to understand that seeing is not believing, because most dental disease in dogs and cats happens below the gum line, hidden from view. And bacteria that can't be seen with the naked eye can damage the tissues connecting the teeth and jaw.

Many pet parents take steps they think will improve their pet’s dental health, for example, feeding crunchy kibble, using pet-safe mouthwash or offering dental chews. However, the action they really need to take — the one that is most important in maintaining their pet's dental health in between professional cleanings — is tooth brushing.

Regularly brushing your pet's teeth is the single most effective thing you can do to keep those teeth and gums in good condition. Daily brushing is ideal, but if that’s not workable, set a goal of four to five times a week. This is the very best way to prevent your furry family member from becoming one of the 70 to 80 percent of dogs and cats with periodontal disease by the age of 3.

How Dirty Teeth Turn Into Irreversible Gum Disease and Other Serious Health Problems

Plaque that collects on your dog’s or cat’s teeth hardens into tartar within a few days. Tartar sticks to the teeth and begins to irritate the gums. Irritated gums then progress to the inflammatory condition called gingivitis. Pets with gingivitis have red rather than pink gums, and they often also have unpleasant breath.

If the tartar is allowed to remain on your pet’s teeth, it accumulates under the gums, eventually causing them to pull away from the teeth. This creates small pockets in the gum tissue that trap additional bacteria in the mouth.

At this stage, your pet has developed an irreversible condition called periodontal disease, which not only causes significant pain, but can also result in abscesses, infections, loose teeth and bone loss. How quickly this process takes place in the mouth depends on several factors, including your pet’s age, overall health, diet, breed, genetics, and the frequency and quality of dental care she receives.

What many pet parents don’t realize is their dog’s or cat’s oral health affects more than just her mouth. Research has established a conclusive link between gum disease and heart disease in humans and dogs (studies on cats are scarce, but it’s reasonable to assume a similar link exists for felines).

Researchers also suspect certain strains of oral bacteria may lead to heart problems. Some types of bacteria found in the mouths of dogs produce sticky proteins that can adhere to artery walls, causing them to thicken. Mouth bacteria are also known to promote the formation of blood clots that can damage the heart.

Top 5 Signs Your Pet’s Mouth Is Painful

Since our animal companions can’t talk to us and are often stoic even in the face of significant discomfort, it’s important to look for other clues. There are five primary signs of dental pain in pets:1

1. No signs at all: Dogs, cats and other companion animals rarely show signs of dental pain. This is a survival mechanism, an instinctual behavior that our domesticated animals have in common with their wild ancestors.

2. Bad breath: The odor is a byproduct of the bacterial metabolic process. In pets with periodontal disease, there are more bacteria in the mouth, and so the odor increases. “Doggy breath” or “tuna breath” is not normal and needs to be evaluated.

3. Altered behavior: Chewing on one side of the mouth, dropping food, running away from the food dish, crying when yawning, hiding, not grooming themselves and acting “grumpy” are all signs of dental pain. You know your pet better than anyone, so look for abnormal behaviors.

4. Bleeding: Bleeding from the mouth is usually due to periodontal disease, but it could also be evidence of fractured teeth, lacerations or ulcers on the tongue or gum tissue, or the presence of an oral mass. Look for thick, ropey saliva, spots of blood found on toys or beds, or drops of blood in the water or food dish. If the periodontal disease is severe enough, you may notice bleeding from the nose or bloody discharge when your pet sneezes.

5. Return to normal: Once your veterinarian addresses your pet’s oral issues, your pooch may show he’s feeling better by acting like a puppy again or your kitty might seek extra attention.

I would add that if you can see red, inflamed gums in your pet’s mouth, or teeth with an obvious buildup of brown or greenish plaque and tartar, you can assume that if your dog or cat isn’t already in pain, he will be soon without intervention.

Signs of Oral Disease in Your Pet

Signs of mouth problems in dogs and cats are usually subtle in the beginning, but can progress rapidly to a painful (and costly) situation that compromises your pet’s quality of life. Symptoms of tooth and/or gum disease include:

Redness of the gums

Tenderness around the mouth and/or teeth

Bad breath

Drooling or dropping food

Loose teeth

Bleeding from the mouth

Discolored teeth

Loss of appetite/poor appetite

Broken teeth

Weight loss

If you notice any of these signs in your pet, it’s time to make an appointment with your veterinarian.

5 Recommendations to Keep Your Pet’s Teeth and Gums Healthy

1. Diet. Your pet’s diet plays a significant role in the amount of tartar she collects on her teeth. Raw diets, even prepared, ground raw diets, help control tartar. Raw ground bone is a gentle dental abrasive that acts like fine sandpaper when chewed, which helps remove debris stuck on teeth.

Raw meat contains natural enzymes, and in addition, raw food doesn’t stick to teeth, unlike starchy kibble. Don't buy into the myth that kibble helps keep your pet's teeth clean. Kibble is no better for your pet’s teeth than crunchy human food is for your teeth.

That being said, it’s important to realize that even raw fed pets acquire plaque and tartar (usually less, and at a slower rate, but the myth that all raw fed pets will never need oral care is indeed a myth), so don’t assume food alone will save your pet from dental disease.

Additionally, there are a few supplements that research shows improves gum health and the oral microbiome, including ubiquinol and probiotics. Adding these supplements to your pet’s protocol can improve his oral defenses and reduce the rate at which degeneration occurs.

2. Raw bones. For dogs and cats, chewing plays an important role in removing plaque and tartar from teeth. Even though there are plenty of toys and food products on the market that can be of some help, raw bones are really the best option, and few dogs, at least, will turn them down.

It’s important the bones are raw, because cooked bones can splinter and damage your pet's gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The size depends on the size of your pet and whether she’s such an enthusiastic chewer that she risks injuring herself or even breaking teeth.

Your dog should always be supervised when she’s working on a bone to minimize the risk of choking or tooth damage, and raw bones should be refrigerated between chewing sessions.

3. Daily brushing. Brush your pet’s teeth, preferably every day. A little time spent each day brushing your dog’s or cat’s teeth can reap tremendous rewards in terms of his oral health and overall well-being. It can also potentially save you money, because he may not need as many professional teeth cleanings during his lifetime.

With patience and persistence, most people can teach their pet to submit to daily tooth brushing. One of the secrets to successful tooth brushing is to progress slowly and gently, allowing your dog or cat to adapt at his own pace. Start with your finger rather than a toothbrush and get him accustomed to having your finger in his mouth. Gently rub the top front teeth and all the way to the back teeth. Then do the same on the lower teeth.

Praise your pet often and keep these sessions short. Once he’s accepting of the presence of your finger in her mouth, wrap a very thin damp cloth or piece of gauze around your fingertip and rub the teeth. The next step is to use a safe, natural dental cleaning product designed for pets and apply a small amount to the gauze before you rub his teeth. Once he gets used to this, you can progress to either a finger brush or a soft toothbrush the right size for his mouth.

If your furry companion is really uncomfortable having his teeth rubbed or brushed, there are enzyme-based products available that when applied to the teeth go to work to break down plaque and tartar without brushing. However, the more rubbing and brushing your pet will allow, the more quickly you'll see results, and the easier it will be to maintain his oral health.

4. Regular at-home mouth inspections. Your dog (and to a lesser extent, your kitty) should allow you to open his mouth, look inside, and feel around for loose teeth or unusual lumps or bumps on the tongue, under the tongue, along the gum line and across the roof.

After you do this a few times, you’ll become aware of any changes that occur from one inspection to the next. You should also make note of any difference in the smell of your pet’s breath that isn’t diet-related.

5. Veterinary checkups. Arrange for regular oral exams performed by your veterinarian. He or she will alert you to any existing or potential problems in your pet’s mouth, and recommend professional teeth cleaning, if necessary.

If you’re conscientious about your pet’s dental home care and she doesn’t have any special situations that predispose her to tartar buildup or other dental issues, she may never need a professional cleaning by a veterinarian. However, pets with extreme tartar buildup, badly inflamed gums or oral infections need extra help.