National Pet Dental Health Month: What are the Most Common Pet Dental Issues?

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“If you start young, there’s no excuse for not brushing your animal’s teeth. Brushing the canines and incisors is pretty straightforward and easy if the dog is cooperative. Getting to the back of the mouth is a bit harder. But if you are going to brush their teeth, start early, be consistent, make it a routine, make it a positive experience with treats, and don’t force it on them.”
Dr. Brook Niemiec, DVM

Pet dental care is as important (and should be as routine) as dental care in people. Both cats and dogs face many of the same dental issues that people face, including periodontal disease, broken teeth, and gingivitis. To help keep pets healthy, experts are working hard to change the way pet owners think about dental health.

“You go every six months to the dentist and brush and floss your teeth every day because it’s preventative care. It needs to be the same for veterinary medicine: prevention, prevention, prevention,” says Dr. Brook Niemiec, a diplomate of the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC). “Unfortunately, in veterinary dentistry, we often wait for disease to be there, and then we treat it. We need to change that. We need to get more prevention which looks like routine care and regular cleanings, no matter what the mouth looks like,” he says.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has designated February as National Pet Dental Health Month to raise awareness of the importance of caring for a pet’s teeth. During the month, pet owners are encouraged to learn how to do preventative dental care, why dental veterinary care is important, how to spot oral health problems, and what dental care for pets looks like.

Continue reading to learn from two veterinary dental care experts on the most common pet dental issues, the consequences of pet dental problems, the most common treatments, and what preventative care should look like.

Meet the Experts: Dr. Brook Niemiec & Dr. Allen Skinner

Brook Niemiec

Brook Niemiec, DVM, DAVDC, DEVDC, FAVD

Dr. Brook Niemiec completed his doctor of veterinary medicine degree at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. He is a diplomate of the American Veterinary Dental College, a diplomate of the European Veterinary Dental College, and a fellow in the Academy of Veterinary Dentistry. Fewer than ten veterinarians worldwide hold all three certifications. He also has extensive post-graduate training in anesthesia.

Presently, he works for Veterinary Dental Specialties, traveling to their various west coast clinics. He is an advocate for improved and comprehensive dental training at all levels of veterinary education.

Over the past 25 years, he has authored numerous research papers, chapters, and books, including co-authoring The Veterinary Dental Patient: A Multidisciplinary Approach—a definitive textbook on pet dental care. In addition, he lectures worldwide to help advance veterinarians’ knowledge of veterinary dentistry.

Allen Skinner

Allen Skinner, DVM, DAVDC

Dr. Allen Skinner earned his doctor of veterinary medicine degree at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine. He completed his residency at Southern California Veterinary Dental Specialties and is a diplomate of the American Veterinary Dental College.

His primary clinical interests include oral and maxillofacial surgery, correction of congenital malformations, and orthodontics. Currently, he attends to pet dental needs at the Veterinary Dental Specialties clinic in San Diego, CA.

Guide to the Most Common Pet Dental Problems

According to Dr. Skinner, “The most common dental problems are periodontal disease or gum disease. It’s usually in small breed dogs. On the large dog side, it’s broken teeth. They fracture teeth a lot because people give their pets things that are too hard.”

Simply put, periodontal disease, also called gum disease, is a bacterial infection in the mouth and gums. This disease presents very similar in humans and dogs with inflamed, red, and bleeding gums. For most pet owners, periodontal disease isn’t immediately apparent, which is why routine vet visits with a trained dental veterinarian are essential.

Unfortunately, periodontal disease in pets is widespread: “Current studies that look at periodontal diagnostic testing show that 90 percent of dogs have gum disease at one year of age. This happens for a lot of reasons. For one, they live longer. Number two, they have shorter mouths and their teeth tend to be crowded. Also, domestic dogs are less orally active, and many don’t allow home care. But the number one thing is they’re genetically prone to it,” says Dr. Niemiec.

Tooth fractures are also relatively common in dogs. Dr. Niemiec elaborates that “there are two types of fractures: there are complicated fractures that expose the root canal directly and uncomplicated crown fractures that don’t expose the root canal directly but expose the dentin. Easily 50 percent of dogs have uncomplicated crown fractures that need to be treated.”

But dogs aren’t the only pets who have dental issues: “Cats can get gum disease, but they get it less often than dogs,” says Dr. Niemiec. “They also have a gum disease condition called ‘feline juvenile periodontitis,’ which is a really severe form of gum disease early in their life. They can also have what’s called ‘tooth resorption.’” Tooth resorption is a painful disease that affects an estimated 20 to 60 percent of domestic cats.

Consequences of Pet Dental Issues

Dental problems in pets, if left unchecked, can lead to more severe problems. Unfortunately, Dr. Niemiec sees this all too often. “Essentially, every pet has it, unless they just had their teeth cleaned. Dental diseases hurt, but pets never show signs of it,” he says.

Some of the consequences can even show up at a very young age. “With small dogs, their jaw bone can be degraded by periodontal disease. By the time they’re a year of age, 30 percent of dogs under a year of age already have bone loss,” says Dr. Niemiec.

Beyond the jaw, dental disease in pets can cause systemic problems. “Every major body function can be affected by or the bacteria in the mouth. The mouth holds bacteria, and when you get inflammation, it opens up all the blood vessels to let that bacteria come in. Once it gets in the blood, wherever the blood goes, the bacteria can go. So the liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, everywhere can be affected,” says Dr. Skinner

One of the consequences of poor dental health that Dr. Niemiec sees is behavioral issues: “What we have found is that once the animal is treated, a lot of their negative behavioral changes will disappear. I hear from clients every day, ‘Well, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with my pet, but since you treated his mouth, he is acting like a puppy or kitten again.’ And why? Because we took them out of pain and cleaned up the infection,” he says.

Treatments for Pet Dental Issues

Routine vet care is essential to help take care of pet dental issues before they become large-scale problems. Dr. Skinner notes, “If we catch periodontal disease early enough, we can do periodontal therapy, where we go in and clean around the tooth really well and put antibiotic gel down in there.”

However, if left untreated, more drastic measures come into play. “The next big step we would take would be to actually put a bone graft and try to get new bone to grow around a tooth. Then at the end stage of periodontal disease, we have to just take the tooth out,” he says.

On the other hand, caring for broken teeth resembles the same kind of dental care people can get. “As far as broken teeth go, we are really left with two options: either a root canal to try to save the tooth or extraction. With root canals, it’s the same thing that you or I would get but bigger, and then we can put a crown on,” says Dr. Skinner.

Preventative Care for Pet Dental Issues

The only way to prevent pet dental health care issues is for pet owners to be proactive about caring for their pets’ teeth from day one. “Honestly, it is the same thing that you or I do. Brush their teeth at least daily or every other day. Tartar starts to turn into calculus (plaque) after about 48 hours. So if you break that cycle by brushing and getting that plaque and bacteria off the teeth, that obviously reduces your risk,” says Dr. Skinner.

While this can be difficult, Dr. Niemiec offers the following encouragement: “If you adopt a six-year-old small breed dog, the odds of you being able to brush their teeth are zero. But if you start young, there’s no excuse for not brushing your animal’s teeth. Brushing the canines and incisors is pretty straightforward and easy if the dog is cooperative. Getting to the back of the mouth is a bit harder. But if you are going to brush their teeth, start early, be consistent, make it a routine, make it a positive experience with treats, and don’t force it on them.”

Broken teeth can also be prevented if owners are careful about the toys they give their dogs. Dr. Skinner tells his patients that “a big thing you can do is just not give too hard of toys. The easy way that we’ve come up with to let people know is to make sure you are able to indent the toy or treat with your fingernail. If you can indent it with your fingernail, you’re less likely to have issues with broken teeth.”

At the end of the day, though, anything is better than nothing. “I always encourage patients to do something. Because even if they’re just thinking about it, that’s better than what a lot of people have been doing in the past,” encourages Dr. Skinner.

National Pet Dental Health Month Resources

Here are some resources to learn more about National Pet Dental Health Month and how to care for pets’ teeth:

Kimmy Gustafson (Writer)

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor's offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.