Dental Care for Pets

Regular teeth cleanings can help prevent disease in dogs and cats.

Medically Reviewed by Will Draper, DVM on June 23, 2014
3 min read

Has your vet said it's time for your pet to get his teeth cleaned? If so, you might wonder if it's necessary.

Just like visits to the vet, dental cleanings should be part of routine pet care. Cleanings help catch or prevent conditions of the gums and the bones that hold the teeth in place, called periodontal diseases. If left untreated, these diseases can damage your pet's internal organs, not just his mouth.

Periodontal disease, including gingivitis and periodontitis, can develop when plaque and tartar build up underneath the gums. Potentially painful, periodontal disease could cost your pet his teeth. If the bacteria that caused the plaque enter your pet's bloodstream, they can create heart, lung, and kidney problems, too.

The risk of disease varies by animal size. "The chances of periodontal disease in a big-breed dog are less than in smaller dogs. There are 42 teeth in a dog's mouth and 30 in a cat's. In a smaller mouth, there's competition for bone space, and that can lead to disease," says Barden Greenfield, DVM, DAVDC. He's a specialist in pet dentistry and oral surgery, and owner of Your Pet Dentist, in Memphis, TN.

Periodontal disease is preventable if your vet catches signs early, which can only happen during a cleaning. The American Animal Hospital Association recommends that annual cleanings start at age 1 for cats and small- to medium-breed dogs, and at age 2 for larger dogs.

The procedure isn't just about cleaning your pet's teeth. The veterinarian also does a full exam and takes X-rays. "About 3 in 10 dogs and 4 in 10 cats have disease underneath their gum line that can only be detected via X-ray," Greenfield says.

Your pet has to be sedated with general anesthesia, which might sound a little scary, but a full pre-exam will ensure your pet is healthy enough for it. Bad reactions to anesthesia, while extremely rare, can range from mild irritation where the anesthetic is injected or a minor drop in heart rate, to major allergic reactions and even death. But only about 1 in every 100,000 animals has any reaction at all.

You can help minimize risks by following your vet's instructions for fasting your pet before sedation. If your pet is sedated with food in his system, he could vomit, which could cause choking, pneumonia, and death.

The cost of a veterinary dental cleaning varies by region and your pet's needs. But pet owners will likely pay more than they would pay to have their own teeth cleaned. Besides anesthesia, pets require more equipment, manpower, and time for a cleaning.

But the results are worth the investment, Greenfield says. "Pets live longer with better veterinary dental care."

After cleaning and polishing, your vet may apply a product to prevent or slow future plaque buildup. You'll learn some tips for home care, which include brushing your pets' teeth and giving him Veterinary Oral Health Council-approved dental chews.

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