|Dental Disease in Dogs
I was unaware that dogs have dental problems. Is it common?
Dental disease is one of the most common medical conditions seen by veterinarians. Over 68% of all dogs over the age
of three are estimated to have some form of periodontal or dental disease.
Few pets show obvious signs of dental disease. It is up to the pet's family and veterinarian to uncover this hidden and
often painful condition.
Are dental problems the same in pets and people?
No. In man, the most common problem is tooth decay, which, due to the loss of calcium from the enamel, results in
painful, infected caries (also called cavities). In the dog, tooth decay represents less than 10% of all dental problems.
The most common dental problems seen in dogs are caused by periodontal disease.
What is periodontal disease?
Periodontal disease is a term used to describe inflammation or infection of the tissues surrounding the tooth.
Accumulation of tartar and calculus on the teeth causes gum recession around the base of the tooth. Infection soon
follows and the gums recede further, exposing sensitive unprotected tooth root surfaces and the bony tooth sockets
Left untreated, the infection spreads deep into the tooth socket, destroying the bone. Ultimately, the tooth loosens and
Is periodontal disease very common?
It is estimated that more than two-thirds of dogs over three years of age suffer from some degree of periodontitis,
making it by far the most common disease affecting our pet dogs.
How does tartar form and why is it a problem?
The mouth is home to thousands of bacteria. As these bacteria multiply on the surfaces of the tooth, they form an
invisible layer called plaque or biofilm. Some of this plaque is removed naturally by the dog's tongue and chewing
habits. If allowed to remain on the tooth surface, the plaque thickens and becomes mineralized. Mineralized plaque
forms tartar and as the tartar thickens further it becomes calculus. The tartar accumulates above and below the
gumline and presses on the gums, causing inflammation called gingivitis.
As the oral infection progresses, tonsillitis and pharyngitis can also occur. The bacteria can also be absorbed into the
blood stream and be carried to other organs. "Bad teeth" can cause infections in the heart valves (endocarditis),
kidneys and/or liver.
Can tartar be prevented?
Plaque becomes mineralized in some dogs much quicker than in others.
The best way to prevent tartar build-up is regular home care, particularly tooth brushing using toothpaste that is
specifically designed to be swallowed. Special dog chew toys and treats may help reduce or delay tartar build-up. Some
pet foods have been specifically formulated as dental diets that mechanically assist in plaque removal.
Will feeding dry food remove tartar?
Pet food manufacturers have recently developed new dental diets that can help reduce the formation of plaque and
tartar in your pet. Once tartar has formed, it will be necessary to remove it by professional scaling and polishing under
What is involved with a routine dental cleaning?
A routine dental cleaning involves a thorough dental examination, followed by a dental scaling and polishing to remove
the tartar and invisible plaque from all of the tooth surfaces. Your veterinarian will perform pre-anesthetic blood tests to
ensure that kidney and liver function are satisfactory for anesthesia. Sometimes antibiotic treatment is started before
the periodontal therapy is performed. Your veterinarian will discuss the specific pre-dental recommendations for your
Once your dog is anesthetized, your veterinarian will thoroughly examine the mouth, noting the alignment of the teeth
and the extent of tartar accumulation both above and below the gumline. If periodontal disease is severe, it may not be
possible to save badly affected teeth, which may need to be extracted. Next, tooth scaling will be performed using both
traditional hand scalers and ultrasonic cleaning equipment to remove all traces of tartar, both above and below the gum
line. The tartar below the gum line causes the most significant gum recession and it is extremely important that it is
removed thoroughly. After scaling, the teeth are polished to remove microscopic scratches in order to help prevent
subsequent plaque build-up. Special applications such as fluoride, antibiotic preparations and cleaning compounds
may be indicated to decrease tooth sensitivity, strengthen enamel, treat bacterial infection and reduce future plaque
The procedures that your pet may require will be discussed with you before your pet's dental cleaning. Since it can be
difficult to predict the extent of dental disease in advance of the procedure, it is imperative that your veterinarian is able
to reach you during the procedure to discuss any additional treatment that may be necessary.
Why can't I just remove the tartar and plaque with a dental scaler?
Although you can remove the tartar that has accumulated above the gumline in some dogs that are extremely
co-operative, there are three problems with doing this. First, only the tartar above the gumline is removed, leaving
behind the material below the gumline, which will continue to cause periodontal problems. Second, it is not possible or
safe to clean the inner surfaces of the teeth properly in a conscious dog. Third, the use of any instrument on the tooth
enamel will cause microscopic scratches on the surface, ultimately damaging the tooth surface and leading to further
disease. (This is the reason why your dental hygienist always polishes your teeth after removing the tartar with dental
Do I have to make an appointment for my dog to have a dental scaling and polishing?
Yes. Your veterinarian will perform pre-anesthetic blood tests, examine your pet for any other underlying disorders prior
to the procedure, and determine if antibiotic treatment should be started in advance.
How can I prevent tartar accumulation after the procedure?
Plaque and tartar begin forming in as little as six hours after your pet's dental cleaning. A home dental care program
including regular tooth brushing is a must for all pets. Your veterinarian will provide you with detailed instructions on
how to brush or rinse your pet's teeth.
Can I use human toothpaste?
Absolutely not. Human dentifrice or toothpaste should never be used in dogs. Many human toothpastes and other oral
hygiene products contain xylitol, a sugar substitute that is safe for use in humans but highly toxic in dogs (for further
information, see our handout "Xylitol Toxicity in Dogs").
Even if there is no xylitol in the toothpaste, these foaming products contain ingredients that are not intended to be
swallowed and that could cause internal problems if they are swallowed. Human products often contain higher levels of
sodium than your pet requires, which is another reason why they should not be swallowed.
You should also avoid using baking soda to cleang your dog's teeth. Baking soda is alkaline and if swallowed can upset
the acid balance in the stomach and digestive tract. In addition, baking soda does not taste very good, and may cause
your dog to be uncooperative when you try to brush its teeth.
Why is pet toothpaste recommended?
Numerous pet toothpastes that are non-foaming and safe to be swallowed are available in flavors that are appealing to
dogs; depending on the brand, you may be able to find flavors such as poultry, beef, malt or mint. If you use a product
that tastes good, your pet will be more likely to enjoy the whole experience. In addition to the pleasant taste, many of
these doggy toothpastes contain enzymes that are designed to help break down plaque chemically, thus reducing the
time you need to spend actually brushing your dog's teeth.