Dental Disease in Dogs and Cats

One of the most common diseases we see in dogs and cats is dental disease. By the age of four, 85% of pets have some degree of dental disease. Dental disease can come in the form of periodontal disease (disease around the teeth) or endodontic disease (disease within the teeth).

Periodontal disease is the most common form of dental disease in pets. Just like humans, pets build up plaque and tartar on their teeth that irritate the gum tissue, leading to inflammation and swelling of the gums. This stage of dental disease is called gingivitis. If tartar is removed with a dental cleaning, gingivitis is reversible. If left untreated, inflamed gums can then separate from the teeth, creating pockets between the tooth and gingiva. Bacteria can be trapped in these pockets, leading to damage of the tooth’s support structures. This stage of dental disease is called periodontitis and ultimately leads to pain and tooth loss.

Pets can also develop endodontic disease, which means disease of the inner structures of the tooth. Fractures of teeth and blunt force trauma can damage the blood and nerve supply of teeth, leading to tooth death and development of tooth root abscesses. Tooth resorption is a form of dental disease that is very common in cats and sometimes seen in dogs. Teeth affected by this disease begin to develop painful erosions, generally near the gum line.  As the erosion progresses, the visible portion of the tooth will disappear and the root is resorbed and replaced by bone. Dead, infected, and resorbing teeth can be very painful and can lead to infection in other parts of the body.

What are signs that my pet might have dental disease?

  • Bad breath (halitosis)
  • Excessive drooling
  • Visible tartar on the teeth
  • Bleeding from the mouth
  • Reluctance to carry or chew on toys
  • Pawing at the mouth, especially after eating
  • Excessive sneezing or nasal discharge, especially after eating
  • Preferring soft food over dry food, especially if they didn’t used to show a preference
  • Facial swelling, especially under the eyes
  • Fractured or discolored teeth
  • Gum recession
  • Overgrowth of gum tissue
  • A mass on the gums or in the mouth

How is dental disease treated?

Treatment for dental disease depends on the specific disease or injury your pet has. Your veterinarian will recommend a dental cleaning and full oral assessment under anesthesia if they see signs of dental disease. Under anesthesia, your pet will have a thorough scaling and polishing just like you receive from your dentist. Each tooth will be examined for damage or discoloration, and the gum tissue will be probed to look for pocketing around teeth. Dental x-rays will be taken to allow your veterinarian to evaluate for diseases such as tooth root abscesses.

Gingivitis and mild periodontal disease is treated via removal of the tartar (scaling and polishing). If periodontal disease is severe, teeth may need to be extracted to prevent ongoing pain and infection. Teeth with endodontic disease may need to be extracted or, if a pet is seen by a veterinary dental specialist, sometimes teeth can be saved with root canal therapy. Masses inside the mouth can be removed surgically and biopsied to determine if any further care is needed for your pet.

Regular professional dental cleanings are the best way to keep your pet’s teeth and gums healthy and prevent tooth loss as your pet ages. Most pets benefit from a dental cleaning every 1 to 2 years.

Will my pet still be able to eat, chew, and play with toys after dental extractions?

 Yes! Dogs have 42 teeth and cats have 30 teeth, so even after losing many teeth, they usually still have plenty left. Pets typically return to using their mouth however they were prior to extractions- or sometimes better than they were because their mouths are no longer painful. We ask that your pet have softened food and no access to chew toys during the immediate post-operative period, but after that, they usually return to their regular diet and activities. Some pets who have full mouth extractions prefer to have a canned food diet long-term (although many of them will return to eating dry food once they are healed!).

How can I take care of my pet’s teeth at home?

You can take an active role in maintaining your pet’s dental health at home.  Daily brushing is considered the gold standard.  Brushing removes the plaque before it can become tartar.  A variety of toothbrushes are available and toothpaste designed for dogs and cats can be purchased at your veterinary clinic – avoid using human toothpaste as it can be irritating if swallowed. 

In addition to brushing, you may consider dental chew treats or diets specifically designed to improve dental health. When choosing a dental chew, veterinary dentists advise avoiding items that are too hard to make an indent in with your thumbnail, as they are hard enough to fracture teeth. The most common offenders for causing tooth fractures are antlers and plastic Nylabones. If you need help finding a good chew item, visit the Veterinary Oral Health Council for a list of safe and effective dental products for dogs and cats.


Content prepared by St. Francis Animal Hospital, 1227 Larpenteur Ave. West, Roseville MN. 55113