Oral health is one of the most important, and often the most overlooked, aspects of our pets’ health. Just like us, dogs and cats need daily dental care to prevent the onset of dental disease. Good dental habits are best initiated while your pet is young, to ensure a long and healthy life.

Puppies are born with 28 baby (deciduous) teeth, and kittens are born with 26. Puppies and kittens will usually lose their baby teeth and experience eruption of their adult teeth between four and six months of age. After eruption, dogs will have 42 permanent teeth, while cats will have 30. Some puppies and kittens may have what are called retained deciduous teeth, which are baby teeth that do not fall out on their own by the age of six to seven months. It is recommended that these remaining deciduous teeth be removed, often at the time of the pet’s neuter or spaying procedure, to prevent future dental issues, including overcrowding, abnormal jaw position and periodontal disease.

Periodontal disease — disease around the outside of the tooth — is very common in dogs and cats. One study found that nearly 85% of pets will have some degree of periodontal disease by the age of three, most commonly caused by a lack of regular dental care. Without regular cleaning and dental care, plaque (food debris and bacteria) will develop on teeth, which can then mineralize into tartar. Tartar will advance, which will block oxygen to the outer tooth, promote bacterial growth and cause the development of gingivitis, which is inflammation of the gums. If this process is left untouched, it can advance and cause bone loss, pain and potentially a tooth root abscess, which is severe infection of the root of a tooth. Dental disease can also carry bacteria from the mouth through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, including the heart, kidneys and liver, which can potentially cause serious organ dysfunction.

Common signs of periodontal disease in dogs and cats include bad breath, excessive drooling, reluctance to eat, broken teeth, changes in behaviour, bleeding from the mouth, nasal discharge and even chronic eye infections. If you see any of these signs, it is important to see your veterinarian for a comprehensive oral examination to determine necessary treatment.

The good news is that periodontal disease can be avoided with regular dental care at home. As mentioned earlier, it is best to institute these good habits at a young age to ensure lifelong oral health.

The most important aspect of home dental care is regular teeth brushing with toothpaste. Brushing helps manually remove plaque from the surface of the teeth as well tiny food particles between teeth and under gums. Studies have shown that brushing at least three times a week can help maintain healthy teeth and gums; however, it is still recommended to perform brushing at least once daily. It is best to use a finger brush in puppies and kittens to get them use to the process. Be sure to only use pet-specific toothpaste — do not use human toothpaste, as it contains too much fluoride and may contain artificial sweeteners, which can be dangerous if ingested. Pet toothpaste is available in flavours dogs and cats love, such as chicken, peanut butter and fish. When brushing, ensure to brush the outside surface of the teeth, as saliva will naturally clean the inside surface on its own.

In addition to regular brushing, there are also a variety of dental diets, wipes, gels and treats that can be a great addition to regular dental home care. When purchasing dental treats, ensure that they are not too hard, as they can potentially fracture teeth (especially delicate baby teeth). Your veterinarian can guide you on appropriate and effective dental diets, treats and products for your pet. A healthy mouth will help ensure that your puppy or kitten lives a long, comfortable and healthy life.

Andrea Smith BSc, DVM, CCRP (candidate) is an associate veterinarian at the Don Mills Veterinary Practice in Toronto.