A Pet Owner’s Guide to Dog and Cat Dental Health

October 31st, 2017 by The Clarkson Team

Dental health problems are the most frequently diagnosed health problem in pets.

By just age 3, 80% of dogs and cats show signs of periodontal disease – that’s 4 out of every 5 pets! And the problems can start in puppies and kittens only a few months old.

Just like you, pets develop plaque (a film of bacteria) on their teeth that hardens to tartar within 36 hours if it isn’t brushed away. Tartar accumulates, infects the mouth, and leads to dental disease. Oral disease can then contribute to even more diseases, spreading to your pet’s other organs and shortening their life.

It’s also very painful for your furry friend.

That’s why we’re publishing this guide on how to keep your pet’s mouth healthy. It starts with learning to spot the symptoms of dental disease:

Spotting Dental Disease – Signs and Symptoms

Your dog or cat won’t tell you when their teeth hurt – in fact, animals are experts at hiding pain so they don’t show any signs of weakness. That means by the time you see your pet stop eating or hear them whimper, their oral problems have already progressed to a very grave state.

You should be on the lookout for these symptoms of oral deterioration:

Symptoms for Dogs

  • Bad breath (“dog breath” isn’t normal!)
  • Swollen or red gums
  • Visible tartar on the teeth
  • Gums bleeding after brushing
  • Chewing on one specific side of the mouth
  • Taking kibble from the bowl and eating it somewhere else
  • Leaving broken crumbs after eating
  • Swallowing food whole
  • Loose teeth

Symptoms for Cats

  • Bad breath (“cat breath” isn’t normal!)
  • Swollen or red gums
  • Visible tartar on the teeth
  • Gums bleeding after brushing
  • Newfound aversion to hot or cold foods
  • Leaving a mess after eating
  • Swallowing food whole
  • Vomiting whole pieces of kibble
  • Loose teeth
  • Hiding
  • Poor grooming
  • Acting less playful

It’s important to know that when it comes to dental health and dental disease, our dogs’ and cats’ teeth aren’t so different from our own.

To illustrate this and help you recognize dental problems in your pets, we’ve created this chart to show you exactly what it looks like – with the human counterpart beside it so you can see just how bad it really is!

Pretty ugly, isn’t it? This is action of long standing bacterial infection.

If you notice your pet’s mouth looking like anything other than the first (healthy) image, make a dentistry appointment with your vet right away!

Risk Factors for Dog and Cat Oral Problems

Certain pets are more at risk for specific types of dental problems than others, due to environment, breed, or age.

Small Dogs

Small dogs have less bone to lose, so the progression of periodontal disease can be more rapid. Their teeth are more crowded above the gum due to their small head size, which creates more spaces for bacteria to live. Because of these factors, they can go from tooth loss to jaw fractures very quickly.

Round-headed Dogs

Dogs like bulldogs, Boston terriers, and pugs have an even bigger problem with tooth crowding than other small dogs. Their teeth tend to be in more abnormal positions, sometimes stacked on top of each other or rotated. These factors greatly increase their risk for dental disease.

Certain Breeds of Cats

These breeds of cats tend to have higher rates oral disease: Siamese, Himalayan, and Persian.

Pets Who Eat Canned Food Only

Hard, dry pet food forces pets to chew and break off some of the plaque on their teeth. Pets who eat only canned or soft foods are at a higher risk because of their daily habits.

Older Pets

Senior pets have had a lifetime to accumulate mouth issues and build up tartar if they haven’t had regular dental cleanings.

Pets Who Don’t Receive Regular Dental Care

Dental care, both at the veterinarian and at home, is essential to keeping your pet’s risk of dental disease at a minimum. One important thing you can do at home is brush your pet’s teeth!

4 Easy Steps to Brush Your Pet’s Teeth

One of the easiest ways that responsible pet parents like you can take care of your pet is by doing something for them that you already do for yourself every day … teeth brushing.

Just like us, dogs and cats should have their teeth brushed every day to fend off tooth decay, tartar buildup, and bacterial infection.

Step 1: Get a Pet-friendly Toothbrush and Pet-friendly Toothpaste

If you have a cat or a small dog, get a small pet toothbrush with soft bristles to brush their teeth. You can get this from your veterinarian or a pet store.

If you have a larger dog, you can use a soft-bristle child’s toothbrush.

Make sure you get toothpaste made specifically for dogs or cats. Human toothpaste can be toxic to pets – and they’ll hate the taste.

Step 2: Gently Accustom Your Pet to the Idea of Tooth Brushing

Of course, your pet won’t love having your fingers and a toothbrush in their mouth right away. You will have to ease them into the process and get them used to it slowly. For this reason, don’t expect to brush your pet’s teeth on the first go. It will take many sessions before they are comfortable. Make sure you don’t rush it or force them, as you will create a bad association with the process.

Start by gently lifting their lip with your fingers and praising them.

Next, try putting something tasty on your finger, like chicken broth or tuna water. Let your pet lick your finger, then try rubbing their teeth with your finger if they’re comfortable. They will start to learn that this process comes with good tastes and praise.

Step 3: Add Gauze or a Finger Toothbrush

Once your pet has gotten used to your finger in their mouth (sometimes with the toothpaste) it’s time to add the next element. Wrap your finger in gauze, or use a finger pet toothbrush (which you can get from your vet or the pet store).

Add the toothpaste and carefully rub your pet’s teeth.

Step 4: Start Using the Pet Toothbrush and Toothpaste

Now your pet should be comfortable with your fingers in their mouth, the texture of the gauze or finger toothbrush, and the taste of the toothpaste. You can switch to the pet toothbrush now if you’d like. Let them sniff it and lick the toothpaste off to get used to the texture first.

Then, pull up their gum and start gently brushing. Begin with the large front teeth, which are the easier ones to access. As your pet becomes more relaxed with the brushing, move toward the back teeth.

Don’t forget to praise your cat or dog and make it a good experience for them!

If your pet acts defensive or scared at any time, make sure you slow down whatever you’re doing and go back to an earlier step that they were comfortable with.

We know that it might seem daunting to brush your pet’s teeth, but like anything else, it becomes no problem once you (and your pet) get into the habit! If you’re struggling to brush your furry friend’s teeth every single day, aim for at least a few times a week to start.

Dental Diets and Treats

Another way you can keep your pet’s mouth healthy is by feeding tooth-friendly foods.

In general, kibble that your pet has to crunch (rather than soft canned food) will contribute to plaque prevention. That’s because to eat hard food, your pet must create more saliva, which helps cleanse bacteria out of the mouth. Plus, the hard food particles help clean the teeth.

However, that doesn’t mean you should never feed your pet canned food (canned foods have other benefits, such as encouraging your pet to drink more liquid)! You should aim to strike a healthy balance between the two types of food.

Your veterinarian can also recommend a special vet-approved dental diet formula, if maintaining dental health is particularly important for your pet. Just be sure to ask your vet before choosing a kibble, because the pet food industry is not very well regulated. Many pet foods (or toys, treats, etc.) make claims that they don’t deliver on – and they can even be harmful in some cases.

The Veterinary Oral Health Council also offers a list of foods, treats, and chews that they have evaluated and determined are good for pet dental health. Check it out here.

Cats will be more inclined to enjoy dental treats than to chew on any dental toys, so be sure to choose a healthy option for them!

Dental Toys and Chews

Give your pet – particularly dogs – toys that will protect their teeth instead of damaging them. For example, nylon tennis balls can actually erode the crowns of teeth – but rubber road hockey balls and Kong toys are great alternatives!

Chew toys that are effective usually look too big – because your pet will have to actually chew on them instead of swallowing them whole! A few suggestions:

  • Bully sticks
  • Biscuit-type treats
  • Dental sticks

Meanwhile, here are a few harmful items that you shouldn’t give your pets to chew on:

  • Animal bones (can cause tooth fractures and premature erosion)
  • Hard nylabones (if you can’t flex it or stick your fingernail into it, it’s too hard)
  • Hooves


It’s always a good idea to ask your vet before trying new dental toys or chews with your pet!

Veterinary Dental Exams and Cleaning

Even with brushing your pet’s teeth daily, feeding a dental diet, and giving dental chews, your pet still needs to see the vet for regular dental exams!

You brush your own teeth (we hope!) and still visit the dentist; it’s the same with your dog or cat. Dental care at home can only go so far.

The best part is that regular dental exams and cleanings will prevent your pet’s mouth from developing any progressive oral diseases or permanent damage. And it’s less expensive to do prevention than treatment! 

What Happens at the Dental Exam?

An oral examination should be part of your pet’s regular physical check-up at the vet. Your vet will examine your pet’s mouth and check for tartar, red gums, fractured or loose teeth, lesions, gum recession, and any other troubling oral symptoms.

If your pet’s mouth looks healthy, you’ll be good to go! If not, your vet may recommend a professional dental cleaning.

What Happens at the Dental Cleaning?

Pet dental cleanings are safe procedures that vets perform all the time, so there’s no need to worry. Your pet will probably be placed under a light, safe general anesthetic to keep them docile and calm for the duration of the cleaning. A good vet clinic will also provide full monitoring of your pet throughout the procedure to ensure their safety and wellbeing.

A dental cleaning is typically a straightforward one-day affair – so your pet most likely won’t have to spend even one night away from home.

At Clarkson Village Animal Hospital, this is what we include in our preventive dental cleaning package:

  • Oral examination
  • Teeth cleaning
  • Teeth polishing
  • Probing the gum pockets for depth
  • Assessing any teeth that seem problematic

A good dental cleaning can make a huge difference in pet’s mouth. Check out this before and after picture!

For advanced problems, such as tooth extractions, your pet may need oral surgery. Your vet will either be able to perform this procedure in-house, or they will refer you to a specialist who can. But it’s much better to take care of your pet’s teeth from the start and avoid problems like this altogether.

With this guide, you will be able to make sure your pet’s mouth stays healthy, helping them live a happier, pain-free life!

Clarkson Village Animal Hospital can help you keep your pet’s mouth healthy through both prevention and treatment. Make an appointment now!

Are vet visits stressful for your cat? Get our free tip sheet about how to make transportation less stressful for our feline friends!

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About The Clarkson Team

Our caring, dedicated veterinary team has helped dogs, cats, and their families for over 27 years at the Clarkson Village Animal Hospital in Mississauga. We know how important your furry family members are – we’re pet lovers too!

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