Talking Teeth

Is your dog’s bad breath sabotaging your cuddle time? Is your kitty drooling while nibbling her kibble? If so, your four-legged family member likely has dental disease. A recent study of Banfield Pet Hospital’s 770-hospital network identified dental disease as the most common malady among pets, affecting 68 percent of cats and 78 percent of dogs over three years of age.

Most dental diseases, including halitosis (bad breath) and gingivitis (gum disease) are caused by tartar accumulation. All cats and dogs can develop dental tartar, but small breed dogs are particularly predisposed. Toy Poodles, Yorkshire Terriers, Maltese, Pomeranians and Shetland Sheepdogs are at greatest risk, according to the Banfield study.

Be sure to inspect your pet’s teeth and gums on a regular basis just as you would his or her skin and haircoat. Here’s the key to getting a good look- don’t try to pry your pet’s jaws open lest you desire to engage in a wrestling match.  Rather, with the mouth remaining closed, simply pull those flabby lips up, down, and then back (as if he is smiling) to get a good view of the gums and teeth. Look for tartar accumulation (brown colored material that’s adhered to the teeth) redness or swelling of the gums, and broken or loose teeth.

If your pet does develop significant tartar and gingivitis, he’ll need a thorough dental cleaning. Dental X-rays may be recommended to detect abscesses or bone loss. Should such significant abnormalities be found, your vet will discuss antibiotic therapy and the pros and cons of removing the affected teeth versus a root canal procedure.

The best way to prevent tartar buildup is to brush your pet’s teeth (including those way in the back) at least two to three times a week. Ask your vet or members of the clinic staff to share their secrets for success when it comes to brushing.  Have them observe and provide critique as you demonstrate how you brush those canines (in cats they should be called “felines”), incisors, and molars.

What can you do besides brushing?  Dental chews, additives to your pet’s water, products applied to the teeth and gums, and specially formulated dry foods that have received the Veterinary Oral Health Council Seal of Acceptance can help prevent tartar buildup.  However, nothing beats regular brushing (sorry!).

Part of your pet’s annual physical examination performed by your veterinarian should include careful inspection of the teeth and gums.  Early identification and treatment of dental disease goes a long way in preventing serious consequences.

Now it’s your turn to talk about teeth.  What have you experienced with your dogs and cats?

Best wishes for good health,

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

Be Sociable, Share!

19 Comments on “Talking Teeth

  1. I recently made an interesting discovery, re: tooth cleaning. My 13 lb. Yorkie, maybe Silkie Terrier, had awful breath. He has many chews, bones, and rawhide that keep his back teeth sparkling but those front teeth were awful. I recently began giving him a tiny kong with peanut butter, and a “grass ball” made by JWPet also with peanut butter spread over the nubby parts. These two items have resulted in MUCH cleaner front teeth and great breath! A good thing since he loves to give face kisses.

    I had be thinking a visit to the vet for tooth cleaning was unavoidable, but these two things made a huge difference and it looks like my vet phobic boy will be spared the trip.

    Another thing I wanted to mention about small breeds and teeth is that often tiny dogs get their adult teeth, but some of their baby teeth may not get pushed out in the process. In addition to bad breath this condition can cause the loss of adult teeth if not addressed. The baby teeth crowded with the adult teeth cause tarter and food to build up and can cause serious problems for very young dogs.

  2. Ugh. Of course I meant “exam and subsequent cleaning.” I wish I could edit my comments!

  3. One thing you did not mention is that dental disease can have serious health consequences beyond the teeth, jaws, and mouth. Just as with humans, it is believed that dental bacteria from dental disease can have a negative impact on cardiac health.

    My dog’s canine dentist was happy to see him when I brough him in for a cleaning and subsequent exam. He said that most dogs he sees already have serious heart/health complications from neglected dental care. He was happy to see a health, relatively young dog come for a cleaning. He told me that my dog (6 years old at the time – and a giant breed) might need one more cleaning in his lifetime.

    He also told me that when brushing a dog’s teeth, you really only need to brush the outer surfaces of the upper jaw. He said the other surfaces are adquately “swept” by the tongue. (Obviously, brushing other surfaces isn’t going to hurt.) He was also infavor of “crunchy” food. He said it helps. He was NOT in favor of bones of any kind. He said much of his practice is taken up with repairing damage from them.

  4. In response to Jackie’s question, the best way to find a veterinarian who specializes in dentistry, visit the American College of Veterinary Dentists. Follow the appropriate prompts to find a specialist in your neck of the woods.

  5. After my oldest dog had dental work and cleaning last fall I knew I had to come up with a good program to keep everybody’s teeth in good shape. As # 1 I can’t afford dental cleaning on 9 dogs every year and 2 # I can’t imganine having my dogs undergoing anesthesia every year. My next issue was that I cannot brush their teeth as often as it would take to keep them in decent shape. I have been feeding some raw meaty bones here and there but had not been consistent with it. So I decided the most logical thing to do is to feed them raw meaty bones at least 2 to 3 times a week. I make up for the cost of the raw meaty bones by not buying the expensive kibbles anymore and instead buy good quality but cheaper ones, but supply with fresh foods, eggs, yoghurt, kefir and the raw meat and bones. It took a few months of feeding this way but now everybody has nice clean teeth and even my Jack Russell terrier who used to have bad breath now has a clean mouth and no more smell.

  6. Boarders at my kennel are all given Oxyfresh Oral Hygiene Solution daily in their water. After 5 days we often see a dramatic improvement in the amount of tarter on their teeth. Additionally, when one comes in with a lot of tarter I apply Oxyfresh Pet Gel daily and results are often dramatic. We feed Canidae, kibble and canned with warm water and Great Life Enzymes Pro. I agree with those feeding raw, as I have had the same experience. However, we do feed our own dogs commercial kibble and canned, Great Life, including their freeze dried raw. (we are vegan and feeding raw is disturbing to us) We have a Yorkie and a Pom obtained as adults and the Pom has rotten front teeth. The rest of her teeth are now tarter free! The front ones need to be removed. They and the gums around them are ugly. Our western vet, when she was last in, thought they were not so bad. I would like to find a veterinary dentist. Where do I look? AMVA?

  7. Don’t assume that because a pet is young that their teeth are healthy. I rescued an 8-10 wk old kitten living outdoors probably on its own. Not sure what type of nutrition he received in his first 8 to 10 weeks of life or whether that contributed to his periodontal disease that took all of his teeth except for his 4 fangs and the tiny teeth between them before he was 2 yrs old. While dental care for a pet is expensive, It is important to keep healthy. Be proactive rather than reactive. Bad teeth are painful and affects their behavior . The bacteria can spread throughout their body and cause more problems than just in their mouth.

  8. I went to a holistic vet for awhile, and she sold me a water additive for my diabetic — and the additive had xylitol in it!!! I think it had been pulled by the manufacturer but my vet was still selling it :-( After I came into some money I decided to take the dog to a surgeon who specialized in dentistry. He removed a lot of really bad teeth and it cost me $1500. …then she passed away three months later from something totally out of the blue.

    I love the old guys but dental work is such a tough call, especially when they have other issues. I rescue these oldies and they turn into puppies when they get a new leash on life, but they are expensive. I found a reasonably priced, competent vet finally and had one of my oldies’ teeth done last week. That boy is in the early stages of kidney disease, and my vet said the bad teeth could exacerbate that. My other oldie has a heart condition and I’m waiting for the results of her ECG before deciding on a dental. My new vet can do her dental under very light sedation vs. totally under, which makes me feel optimistic. Bad teeth can exacerbate heart disease too, so I really want to have it done if possible. It’s a catch-22: a bad heart makes anesthesia risky, but bad teeth can damage the heart

  9. Oh yeah, them teeth … Jasmine had surgical cleaning done few times. We brush twice daily, it is helping to keep them clean longer, I wouldn’t say it’s working 100%.

    I did notice that addition of chewing on meaty bones does help.

    We can’t add anything into the water, Jasmine won’t drink it when it’s “contaminated”. She won’t touch the water at any of her vet’s. Probably a good thing. The other day she was thirsty enough to drink some and it was followed by couple days of bad stools. Could have been a coincidence but since she didn’t ingest anything else out of the ordinary I kind of don’t think so.

    Same applies for dental chews. With her food allergies and sensitive digestive system it’s quite impossible to find one with “safe” ingredients. And then she’d probably refuse it anyway. I’m happy she likes the meaty bones.

    I made an interesting observation on a friend’s dog. She’s fed raw diet. Some parts of her teeth are sparkling clean, and some parts are not. You can see quite easily which teeth she’s using to chew. Now, if a dog decided to use all their teeth evenly, I think raw feeding and raw meaty bones would work wonderfully.

  10. My 7 yr. old lab just had a cracked molar removed last week so this article is timely for me. She eats a cooked home prepared diet (she had digestive trouble on a raw diet), I brush her teeth regularly and they are very clean. I was also giving her bully sticks and nyla bones. Those are the only had things she had to chew on that could have caused the cracked molar. I’m not willing to crack another molar so she will have to settle for the dental kong w/ peanutbutter. I expect they did a good job cleaning her teeth but the risk is too high. My previous lab broke 2 molars and had to have them extracted. I blamed the knuckel bones she chewed but clearly bully sticks or nyla bones or both can break them as well.

  11. Haven’t had a tartar problem since I started feeding raw. The worst I see is a tiny bit occasionally on a canine, which I remove easily myself–no drugs required. Not surprising that vets that push over-processed junk food at their clients make megabucks sedating them for dental work.

  12. Not only is it expensive, but seems that these techs often have only been shown how to run the ultrasonics along the gum line by the vet and haven’t a clue what it is all about. This from an RDH’s point of view and I did talk with the tech who was recently hired and given that title and this being her first time in a vets office.

  13. Dental exams by the vet are a bit unrealistic with dogs who are poorly socialized and/or who have to wear muzzles. There’s no getting near my dogs’ teeth for the vet, or for myself. I give raw bones to one who can digest them. Her teeth are pretty good. The other cannot digest bones.

    I don’t particularly like the idea of anasthesia for either of my pets, both seniors, who are in relatively good health at this point in their lives. I’ll research he gel I’ve heard about.

  14. I feed a primarily raw diet to my dogs, but not so drastic that I throw a raw chicken back on the floor. They eat ground raw/bones/organs with added veggies, etc. Plus they get raw knuckle bone for their recreational chewing. My younger guy also LOVES to chew flat slabs of moose antler. They are a bit softer than the elk/deer versions and seem to do a nice scraping action. All this combined seems to keep the their teeth in pretty good shape. The younger one had his annual checkup this morning and my vet even commented on his clean mouth!

  15. Veterinarians have got to do something about the cost of dental cleaning!
    Sad that so many dogs now are unable to have this routine procedure. This is one of my pet peeves since most small dogs need an annual cleaning. Why not receive $200 every year for ten years rather than charge $400+ and not have owners do it at all. Are they now to hawk xray and root canals to boot? Just about the time the pet owners have realized dental care is important, it is now unaffordable.

  16. Dry food does not clean the teeth. If it did, you and I could floss with toast. At best, dry food produces a little less tartar than canned food. Regular vet checkups and proper dental care are essential, no matter what your pet eats. — Dr. Jean Hofve, Holistic Vet
    I am surprised that you would include the VOHC in this article. The VOHC recommends a long list of products I would never feed to my companion animals as their teeth are not the only body parts that I care about.
    I went to the website to learn more about their “evidence-based process of sorts” and came across this:
    Conflict of Interest Statement
    “The available pool of interested and informed individuals is small at present compared to human dentistry. Thus it will not be possible to appoint to the VOHC or its Panels only individuals with no likelihood of prior involvement in the development or testing of all potentially reviewable products. However, individuals appointed to any function in the process will be expected to withdraw from stating opinions or voting on issues regarding products in which they have had or have a personal, professional, or financial interest or involvement.”
    Confidentiality Policy
    “Materials submitted for review will be kept in confidence by all personnel, including Council and Review Panel members, no matter what the result of the review process. Specifically, the VOHC is not a regulatory agency and has no function to play in informing the public regarding products for which request for recognition of a claim was denied. The only information that VOHC provides on specific products is a list of products that have been awarded the VOHC Seal of Acceptance.”

    I am concerned by their conflict of interest statement and by the fact that their approved product list seems to be very heavily populated by Hills and Purina products. Also, even the makers of these inferior foods suggest brushing your companion’s teeth as an adjunct to their carbohydrate, 4d slaughterhouse by product, sawdust, and BHT containing “food.”

  17. What have I experienced? That if you don’t pack inappropriate carbohydrates into the mouths of carnivores, you tend to avoid having to even talk about this. That if you give large, irregularly-shaped raw bones to dogs for recreational purposes, you tend to avoid having to even talk about this.

    The cat came here at the age of six… nasty mouth and prompt dental… she lost four teeth. Ten years later, she hasn’t ever had a second dental and her mouth looks pretty good… no brushing, no products, just raw and commercial wet food only. Additionally, she is not obese or at risk for diabetes nor is she at risk for urinary tract or kidney issues.

    The dog is seven and a half, with pristine teeth… no dental ever, no brushing, no products, no nothin’ except appropriate carnivore food.

    I would like to give a shout out to the Petzlife products… I have seen them work well for customers’ animals. No personal experience with them though ’cause I don’t need them!

  18. I’ve never had good luck cleaning my male Gordon Setter’s teeth (tough to hold his mouth open, brush, and keep him from shaking his head). He’s 9 years old, gets a beef marrow bone once a week (as does my newest roommate, an 8 y/o Gordon girl), and gets his teeth checked annually by my vet. Neither have had any issues. Ironically, he’s going in for his first cleaning this Wed. My girl will go in for her cleaning this fall.

  19. Well, my little dog been through it all. She was adopted as an adult with several missing teeth and nasty plaqued-up stinking teeth. She’s had them cleaned 3x in her life during other procedures (e.g., cherry eye surgery).

    Using a clicker and treats, I taught her to accept tooth-brushing using a child-size toothbrush (for tiny dogs, trim the bristles down to a manageable size). I taught her to put her chin in my hand and I keep those treats coming. We brush daily during as part of her regular grooming and handling which she enjoys and looks forward to. Often rewarding the whole process with a raw chicken neck (for more teeth-cleaning opportunities).

    I found that commercial canine toothpastes cause an allergic reaction (she’s white but turns reddish-brown at all of her body openings and her skin even turns this color), so I use a Vitamin C tablet dissolved in water to brush with (see Dr. Pitcairn’s site for details) and that has worked fine; the tear stains and discoloration cleared right up.

    A few years ago, Maggie was diagnosed with “tooth resorption” and had 3 more extracted. Monica Segal’s site recommended CoQ10 daily and that has apparently stabilized her remaining teeth and she’s lost no more in the last several years. Her US vet actually complimented me on her teeth!

    Someone mentioned to me that poor teeth might be hereditary and I have to say, my friend has 2 similar-aged but unrelated chihuahuas that eat the same commercial kibble. One has great teeth and one has terrible teeth, so who knows?

    I am so envious of my brother’s big dogs — they love their chew toys, don’t get brushed and have nice clean teeth even though they are seniors!