Dentistry for Dogs

You wouldn’t go years between dental exams. Should your dog?

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on September 26, 2012
6 min read

You wouldn’t go years between dental exams and teeth cleanings. Should your dog?

The idea of regular dental care for our pets is new to most of us. But once you know your dog (and cat) can suffer from the same oral health problems you do -- plaque, gum disease, tooth loss, and more -- the idea of regular exams starts to make sense.

What kind of professional dental care does your dog need? How often? And what care should you do at home? WebMD asked veterinary dentists these and other questions. Here are their tips on cleaning your dog’s teeth, daily dental care, and how to keep your pet's smile bright.

Dogs need dental care for the same reasons we do. "The exact process that results in periodontal disease in humans affects our pets," says Brett Beckman, DVM, FAVD, DAVDC, DAAPM, a veterinary dentist practicing in Florida and Georgia.

The process is simple but merciless: Plaque, which is made of saliva, sloughed mouth cells, food, and other things, forms on teeth just minutes after eating. If left untreated, the plaque builds up, leading to gum inflammation that can then cause tissue decay. The inflammation then progresses deep enough to destroy bone, which finally leads to tooth loss, the ultimate end of periodontal disease.

Unfortunately, periodontal disease (also called gum disease), occurs five times as often in pets as it does in people. As a matter of fact, more than 80% of dogs over 3 years old have periodontal disease. Yet, while gum disease is usually the biggest dental problem a dog faces, it's not the only one. Some dogs, especially larger breeds, are also prone to broken or fractured teeth.

All of this can add up to a mouth in great pain. But a dog owner almost never notices the chronic pain because our pets have evolved to hide it. Their animal instincts urge them never to show a sign of weakness. Your dog's mouth could have bleeding gums or abscessed teeth and your dog may still eat just fine. That's why it's vital you do your part for your pooch's oral health.

Pets need a lot of the same regular dental care that people do, with one addition. They need:

  • Daily brushings
  • Quality food
  • Regular oral X-rays, exams, and cleanings
  • Safe teeth-cleaning chew toys or treats

The main reason pets get gum disease so often is because most don't have their teeth brushed daily. Yet brushing your dog's teeth daily is the best way to prevent the buildup and progression of plaque.

Surprisingly, when approached with patience and gentleness, most dogs (and cats), even older ones, can be persuaded to allow regular brushings. Yet statistics show that less than 1% of pet owners commit to brushing their pet’s teeth regularly.

That's why "the best alternative is less labor-intensive home care," says Beckman, "combined with cleaning periodically at a veterinary hospital."

When you take your dog in for their annual dental exam and cleaning, one of the first things your vet will probably do is look inside the mouth.

The vet will check for odor (one sign of gum disease), and for red, swollen, or bleeding gums. The vet will also look for discolored, broken, or missing teeth, as well as gum recession.

"These are all things we look for when the dog is awake," says Sharon Hoffman, DVM, DAVDC, a veterinary dentist in Jacksonville, Fla., "but periodontal disease hides below the gum line, where you can't see it."

That's why, to be effective, a full exam and cleaning must be done under general anesthesia. It's then that the veterinarian can check your dog's mouth for periodontal pockets around the teeth, check all surfaces of the 42 teeth, and perform X-rays, which are vital to diagnosing periodontal disease below the gum line.

An oral exam will also include an evaluation for malocclusions (when a tooth is touching another tooth, or touching soft tissue or the palate). It also involves checking the tonsils, tongue, under the tongue, lip margins and cheek tissue. Your vet will also feel for problems with your dog's jaw, TMJ joint, and for enlargements or swollen lymph nodes.

Finally, a chart will be created, findings recorded, and decisions made: A cleaning and polish only? Or are there some areas that need further attention?

If all your pooch needs is a cleaning, your vet will remove calculus above and below the gum line, smooth rough tooth surfaces, remove dead gum tissue, irrigate under the gum line, apply fluoride, and polish the teeth.

However, most pets do have problem areas that need further care. This is the point at which your veterinarian will talk about the dental issues your dog may be facing and discuss a treatment plan.

Generally most dogs will need oral exams, cleanings, and dental X-rays about once a year, starting at about 6 months of age. Greyhounds, medium, and small dogs often have more urgent needs, Beckman tells WebMD, and may need more frequent care. "It depends a lot on the patient."

How often your pooch needs regular cleanings and exams also depends on:

  • The dog's age.
  • The dog's breed. (Larger breeds often have fewer dental problems than smaller breeds.)
  • The home care you provide. (Do you brush your dog's teeth? Offer them good-quality chew toys and treats?)

The more you do to help your dog’s oral health, the less your veterinarian has to do. The less you do, the more the vet needs to address. Home care that can help your pet's pearly white teeth includes:

  1. Brushing your pet’s teeth daily is one of the best things you can do for your dog's smile. Armed with beef-, poultry- or seafood-flavored toothpaste, a pet-appropriate toothbrush, and patience, 8 out of 10 pets (cats and senior pets included) will ultimately allow you to brush their teeth.
  2. Feed your dog good-quality pet food, which may include a "dental diet" if your vet recommends it. A dental diet consists of dried food and treats that help scrub your dog's teeth as they chew, or foods that include additives that help keep plaque soft.
  3. Let your pet enjoy daily chew time with pet-safe toys such as thin bits of rawhide, rubbery balls or Kongs, bendable bones, and chewable toys you can hide treats in. Beware, not everything your pet chews will keep their teeth clean, Hoffman tells WebMD, "and not everything is good for them to chew." Avoid hard treats, say the experts, like cow or pig hooves, nylon bones, unbendable rawhide, and sheep or cow bones (raw or cooked) -- all of which can fracture or break your pet's teeth. Also steer clear of fuzzy tennis balls – the fuzz abrasively wears down a dog's teeth as the dog chews.
  4. Oral rinses may also help decrease plaque. Again, talk to your veterinarian to see if this is right for your dog and to get recommendations.

You can narrow your search for home care dental products by checking for the seal of the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC), Beckman says. VOHC is the pet version of the American Dental Association (ADA) seal of approval on oral health products for people. You can also check the VOHC web site for recommendations.

When you talk about dental exams and cleanings, the part that gives some pet owners pause is the need for general anesthesia. The experts WebMD talked with felt strongly that an exam and cleaning done without anesthesia is nearly useless.

That's because the bulk of an oral exam is searching for and treating what's below the gum line. Without general anesthesia, a full exam, and X-rays, any initial treatment can't be done effectively.

"Though I worry about it every time I put a patient under anesthesia, it's not anywhere near the concern it was 15 years ago," says Beckman. "We've had a lot of changes in our drug protocols over the years, with better drugs and an extensive knowledge base thanks to the veterinary anesthesia specialty." In most cases, anesthesia is less harmful than dental disease.