The Definitive Dental Health Guide for Pets

Have you ever tried to open your dog or cat's mouth? Maybe it was to insert a medication or to grab something out of its mouth, like a clump of hair or piece of carpet fiber. How well did that go? 

The thought of brushing our pet's teeth doesn't give us any warm and fuzzy feelings. And most pets are not thrilled to have someone's fingers invading their mouths. It can be a traumatic experience for the both of us.

But our pets still need good dental health, whether they like it or not.

Dental Care for your Cat

Photo by Art Siegel 

Statistics on Pet Ownership and Veterinary Care

Approximately sixty-three percent of pet owners consider their pets to be family members and another almost thirty-six percent consider their pets to be pets or companions. But according to a study conducted by the American Animal Health Association (AAHA), only about one-third of pet owners provide basic dental care for their pets. And based on figures from 2011, veterinary visits have declined. In 2011, almost forty-five percent of cat owners did not take their cat(s) to a veterinarian, and almost nineteen percent of dog owners did not take their dog(s) for a veterinary visit.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the primary reason for not taking their pets for a veterinary visit was that their pets did not get sick or injured. But "nearly 90 percent of dog owners and 75 percent of cat owners surveyed indicated that routine check-ups and preventive care are either very or somewhat important," says Dr. Douglas Aspros, President of AVMA.

Sadly, eighty percent of dogs show significant oral disease by age three, according to And eight out of ten cats over the age of three experience dental problems. 

It also seems that another reason for lack of home dental care for pets is the task's perceived level of difficulty. However, with the proper training, tools, patience, and consistency, most pet owners can learn how to control the plaque in their pet's mouth in just a few minutes each day.

Prevention is the best bet for both humans and pets. But why have veterinary visits declined?

There's no denying that veterinary costs have increased over the years. And anxiety is another common factor in declined number of visits. A veterinary visit can be traumatic for both you and your pet, especially if it rarely occurs. But just like with any new routine, it can be handled quickly and be less traumatic each time with a little patience and consistency. 

Why is Dental Health So Important for Pets?

Despite the increased costs, veterinary care that includes a dental check and/or cleaning will help your pet live a long life. 

Just like humans, pets need good dental health because the health of the mouth affects the health of the rest of the body. When bacteria is left to thrive in the mouth and on the teeth, it can cause tooth decay, plaque and tartar buildup, and gum inflammation, and can even be absorbed into the bloodstream, causing more serious health issues like cancer, kidney failure, and heart disease.

A study conducted by Dr. Larry Glickman  at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine revealed a correlation between gum disease and heart disease. The study involved examining the records of about 120,000 dogs, nearly half of which had some stage of periodontal disease. Glickman says, "our data show a clear statistical link between gum disease and heart disease in dogs." He  mentioned that for many heart disease candidates, there isn't just one cause, but the study's findings speak to more emphasis on dental care.

According to Dr. Mercola's sister site Healthy Pets with Dr. Karen Becker, seventy-five percent of pet canines have gum disease by the time they reach middle age. As a general rule, middle age for canines occurs around the sixth or seventh year.  

The culprit of heart disease in dogs is thought to be the absorption of the bacteria found in the mouth. The bacteria enters the bloodstream through the mouth tissue which is known as oral mucosa. The oral mucosa is rich with blood vessels and that increases the speed at which bacteria can enter the bloodstream and spread through the rest of the body. 

When periodontal disease occurs, the surface of the gums weakens and is compromised, allowing the bacteria in the mouth to enter the bloodstream. If the immune system doesn't kill the bacteria that is circulating in the blood, the bacteria can reach the heart and infect it.

This isn't the only way gum disease can lead to heart disease. There are certain strains of bacteria that produce sticky proteins that can adhere to the artery walls. Just like in humans, if the bacteria is allowed to build up, it thickens the walls of the arteries, narrowing the passageway for blood to flow. Bacteria can also promote the formation of blood clots which can damage the heart. According to Dr. Becker, studies have shown that once the oral bacteria enters the bloodstream, it seems able to survive attacks by the immune system.

Pet lovers like us want to make sure that our furry four-legged loved ones receive the love and care they need to live a long and healthy life. We don't like to see them suffer. One of the ways we can help ensure our pets live a long life is to keep their teeth clean with regular brushings and dental checks at their veterinarian.

What are Common Dental Health Issues for Pets?


Dental tartar in pets is a film containing calcium phosphate, carbonate, food particles, and other organic matter that covers the teeth. It sticks to the tooth and promotes plaque buildup. The buildup of tartar can make the mouth more susceptible to bacteria growth that causes damage to the periodontal tissues, leading to periodontal disease, and produces a more noticeable malodor in the mouth.

If your dog's gums turn from a healthy pink color to red, a visit to the veterinarian is in order. That means your dog likely has gingivitis. Tartar irritates the gums and causes inflammation. If the tartar is not removed, it will accumulate under your dog's gums, eventually causing the gums to pull away from the teeth and the formation of small pockets where bacteria can thrive and cause more damage to your dog's health. According to Dr. Becker, this condition is where irreversible periodontal disease has developed.


Dental plaque is another issue for dental health. It is a sticky substance that contains bacteria, saliva, food particles, and epithelial cells. Buildup of plaque on the teeth and at the gum line occurs every day. If left untreated, the plaque can mineralize or harden, forming tartar within two days. The closer the teeth, the bigger the issue of plaque buildup and bad breath.


Gingivitis is the inflammation of the gums. It is most commonly caused by accumulation of food particles between the gums and teeth. Symptoms include bleeding gums, redness, pain, and difficulty in chewing. It may lead to periodontitis if left untreated.

Periodontal Disease

Another common dental health issue in both humans and pets is periodontal disease. It is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria that make up plaque. Inflammation in the gums, structures that support the teeth, periodontal ligament, alveolus, and cementum can occur.

What are Common Indicators of Dental Issues in Your Pet?

There are a number of indicators that your pet is experiencing dental issues like gum disease and periodontal disease. The most common symptom of gingivitis is bleeding gums. You may notice swelling or redness in the gums as well. Yellow teeth can also be an indicator of dental issues.

Additionally, you may see behavioral changes in your pet. Has your pet picked up the bad habit of chewing on things? Seeing your pet chewing on something such as your cell phone cord isn't likely to leave you feeling warm and fuzzy toward your pet, but it may be a sign that your pet is experiencing pain or aching gums as a result of an infection in the mouth. 

Other signs of dental health issues include a preference for softer foods, declining crunchy treats, playing with chew toys less, chewing on one side of the mouth, chewing less and swallowing more food whole, vomiting due to poorly digested food, increased salivation, and pawing at or rubbing the face.

There are many other reasons for a pet to "act out" and do things he shouldn't be doing. It could be due to anxiety, boredom, the need for play time and exercise, the need to go outside to relieve himself, wanting the litter box cleaned out, or wanting time to cuddle. Figuring out the reason behind the behavior will help reduce stress for both you and your pet. 

If the reason for the behavioral changes is a dental issue, however, it's time to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to get your pet's dental health checked out and treated.

How and Where to Start With Your Pet's Dental Care

Is it too late to start a daily dental cleaning with your pet? Obviously, it's easier to start the routine when they are young, but it isn't impossible to get an older pet to approve of the process. It will take time, patience, and lots of rewards to get your pet used to the idea of daily brushings.

Dental Care for Dogs

According to Cesar Millan, world-renowned dog whisperer, it is possible to incorporate dental care into your dog's routine and make it a reasonably pleasant experience for both of you. Here are some of the tips he shares on his website.

Pick the Right Toothpaste

Regular toothpaste for humans, especially ones that contain fluoride, is toxic to dogs. Be sure to pick a toothpaste that is safe for your pet. You can find toothpaste formulated for dogs at most pet stores.

Choose a Good Time

Attempting to brush your dog's teeth while he is riled up probably won't go well, so choose a time when your dog has had plenty of exercise and is more likely to sit still.

Speak Calmly

The way we speak and handle the situation has a big impact on how comfortable our dog feels and how well the process goes. Yelling or showing frustration won't help the situation. So, be sure to use a soothing and calming tone. Speaking that way also helps us to avoid getting stressed out or frustrated. 

Start Slowly

Allow plenty of time for your dog to get used to the process. Don't overdo it the first few times. If your dog gets agitated, stop. Try to work up the duration as your dog becomes more comfortable with the process.

Give a Reward

Most dogs are reward-driven, so be sure to reward your dog afterwards.

Dental Care for Cats

Brushing your cat's teeth shouldn't be a chore either. Taking things slowly and offering plenty of praise will help make the process easier and turn into a regular routine.

Before you begin brushing your cat's teeth, help your cat get used to you putting things in his mouth. A great way to achieve this is by dipping your finger in tuna water, chicken broth, or another liquid your cat might like. Let your cat lick the liquid off your finger and then rub your soaked finger gently over your cat's gums and teeth. Reward your cat with a treat.

After a few sessions of this treatment, and once your cat starts to look forward to it, start to introduce new material, a small square of gauze. You will be working your way up to a toothbrush or sponge. Place the gauze around your finger and gently rub your finger over your cat's teeth in a circular motion. Dipping the gauze in tuna water can aid in this process, providing an extra incentive to comply. Keep repeating these sessions until your cat feels comfortable and give him plenty of praise.

Once your cat looks forward to the flavored gauze process, move on to a toothbrush, dental sponge, or pad. And again, let your cat become familiar with the process by allowing him to lick tuna water or another tasty liquid off the new material. The goal is to get your cat used to the consistency and texture of these new items.

When your cat is comfortable with the new item, add a pet toothpaste to the brush or sponge and allow your cat to get used to the flavor and consistency of the paste. Apply some of the paste to the gum line with your finger. Remember to offer plenty of praise and encouragement in a soothing, calm voice.

Again, once your cat is used to the toothbrush or sponge and the toothpaste, start brushing. Start small, working on just a tooth or two the first day. Gradually, increase the time and the number of teeth you are brushing.

The goal isn't to accomplish a full teeth brushing in as little time as possible. The goal is to turn this process into an enjoyable experience for the both of you. Going too fast won't help you and your cat make good progress. So, take it slow, give lots of praise, and talk soothingly to encourage your cat to continue making progress.

As with dogs, the better time to incorporate a new procedure is when your cat feels sleepy and relaxed rather than in a playful mood.   

Other Ways to Improve Your Pet's Dental Health

In addition to brushing your pet's teeth and gums, there are other ways to help your pet achieve good dental health.


Sources say that a species appropriate raw diet, a diet that your pet was designed to eat, will benefit not just his dental health but the health of the rest of his body. The proper diet aids the immune system in fighting off bacteria and infections that come along, working to keep your pet healthy and strong and promoting a longer life.

Dental Chews and Treats

For dogs, a raw bone can help scrape away plaque on the teeth. As your dog chews on a raw bone, the cartilage, ligaments, and tendons act as a natural dental floss, rubbing against and around the entire tooth and around the gum line.

For dogs that have difficulty chewing raw bones, choose a dental dog chew that is fully digestible and high quality to help control plaque and tartar on your dog's teeth. Sources say the effect of a dental chew is similar to chewing raw bones, but safer for powerful chewers or dogs that have had restorative dental work done, and can't chew raw bones. Just make sure to give your dog a high-quality dental bone that does not contain wheat, gluten, soy, corn, saturated fat, trans fat, added sugar or salt, animal byproducts such as gelatin or animal glycerin, chemical preservatives, or artificial flavors or colors.

For cats, consider providing a durable, netted dental toy that is filled with catnip. These toys help scrape away soft tartar buildup and massage the gums. The outer netting and streamers help satisfy chewing and crunching instincts as well.

If your cat doesn't normally chew on toys, you can also find edible and digestible chew treats for cats, such as chewy, jerky-type treats. Just make sure to choose ones with natural ingredients and ones that are fully edible.

Giving your pets healthy food and toys that promote good dental health will allow their bodies a better chance at fighting bacteria and infections. With the proper diet, exercise, home dental care program, and regular wellness exams, you can help your pet live a long and healthy life.  



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