Pets are beloved members of many families, so it's important to ensure that they receive the proper care in order to keep them healthy and happy. One aspect of pet care that is often overlooked is oral health. It’s been estimated that a whopping 85% of cats over the age of three suffer from dental disease!

Taking care of your pet’s teeth is extremely important because dental issues can lead to a host of other health problems if left untreated.

Just like in humans, a pet's mouth is home to a diverse ecosystem of bacteria. In a healthy mouth, these bacteria are kept in check by the immune system and regular oral hygiene. However, when oral hygiene is neglected, bacteria can thrive and lead to the formation of plaque — and when plaque accumulates and hardens, it creates tartar. Tartar is a buildup on the surface of the tooth that is difficult to remove, and it creates a place for more bacteria to grow. 

Plaque and tartar can lead to conditions such as:

  • Periodontal disease
  • Gum sensitivity
  • Gum recession
  • Tooth Abscesses
  • Gingivitis 
  • Tooth decay
  • Bad breath

If left untreated, dental issues can cause pain and discomfort for your pet, and can even result in the loss of teeth. The bacteria involved with dental disease can spread infection to other parts of the body like the liver, kidneys, and the heart. In dogs, periodontal disease has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease, and in dogs and cats, it is connected with valvular disease as well as endocarditis, an infection of the interior of the heart. 

How to improve your pet’s oral health

To avoid these issues and keep your pet happy and healthy, it's important to establish a regular oral hygiene routine.  

“Just because your pet is eating fine doesn't mean that they don't have anything wrong or don't need dental care,” said Michael Nappier, clinical associate professor of practice at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and one of the veterinarians at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s Small Animal Community Practice

Just like with humans, brushing your pet's teeth is the most effective way to remove plaque, and it's something that should be done on a daily basis if possible. You can purchase special toothbrushes and toothpaste designed for pets, which will make the process more comfortable for your pet. It’s important to note that you should not use human toothpaste on your furry friends, as they can include ingredients that can harm them if swallowed. For example, some human toothpastes include xylitol, a sweetener that is toxic to dogs. 

It may be more challenging to brush a cat’s teeth if they haven’t been desensitized to it early. Brushing regularly is important for your cat’s health, so it’s also important that your cat has a positive experience with tooth brushing.  Before brushing, try letting your cat lick the pet toothpaste from your finger. Then, start by brushing a few teeth at a time with breaks in between to let your cat get used to the new sensation. 

If your pet is resistant to having their teeth brushed, dental wipes may be an easier alternative.  You can also try using dental chews or gels that can clean the teeth and freshen the breath.

In addition to brushing and dental chews, you can also help to keep your pet's mouth healthy by providing them with a well-balanced diet. Foods that are high in sugar and carbohydrates can lead to the formation of plaque and tartar, so it's important to choose foods that are formulated to promote dental health. You can also opt for dry food; dry food tends to be better for dental health compared to wet food which sticks in the teeth.

Regular veterinary checkups are also an important part of maintaining your pet's oral health. Just like humans, pets need regular dental checkups to ensure that any issues are caught early. Your veterinarian can help you to establish a dental care plan that's right for your pet, and can also provide professional cleaning and other treatments as needed.

Oral health differences between cats and dogs

Dogs and cats have different jaws, tooth shapes, and behaviors, which means they are prone to different problems. 

Feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions (FORL) are common in cats, affecting about 75% of cats five years and older. With a FORL, the dentin within a cat’s tooth is damaged, eventually leading to part of or even all of the tooth being lost. FORLs are caused by holes in the tooth’s enamel and can be treated by your veterinarian by extracting the tooth.

Dogs are more prone to breaking their teeth by chewing on hard objects. There are several different classifications of tooth fracture with different levels of severity. The worst tooth fractures expose the tooth’s pulp, the center of the tooth where the nerves are. When a tooth’s enamel (hard outer coating) is broken, bacteria can get inside and cause infection and decay. A veterinarian can treat a dog’s broken tooth through procedures like root canal and extraction. 

Both cats and dogs who have crowded teeth are more likely to develop dental problems that require professional attention. Crowded teeth are more common in certain breeds. For example, brachycephalic breeds (breeds with smushed faces) like Persian cats and pugs are more likely to have crowded teeth. 

It's important to keep in mind that while these are some general similarities and differences between cats and dogs, each pet is an individual and may have different dental care needs. It is always best to consult with your veterinarian to determine the best oral care plan for your pet.  

Your pet’s oral health is important

Oral care is an essential aspect of pet care that should not be overlooked. Regular oral hygiene and checkups can help to keep your pet's mouth healthy, prevent painful dental issues, and ultimately improve your pet's overall health and well-being. Brushing your pet's teeth and providing a well-balanced diet are also simple but effective ways to promote your pet's oral health. 

Remember that dental issues can cause severe health problems if left untreated and a healthy mouth is one step closer towards a healthy pet!  

Written by Sarah Boudreau M.F.A. '21, a writer with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine


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