By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
When I was young, my parents and dentist repeatedly drilled into my head the importance of caring for my teeth and gums. Years later, I can honestly say I’m grateful for those constant reminders – and not just because it saved me time in the periodontist’s chair. As cardiologist, I became aware of the strong link between dental problems like periodontal disease and cardiovascular disease, and I now consider systemic bacterial infections to be a serious heart disease risk factor.
Guess what? The same is true for dogs and cats.
In fact, pets can suffer from many of the same dental problems as humans. Though cavities are rare, dogs and cats can develop gingivitis, broken, infected, or abscessed teeth, cysts in the mouth, and misaligned teeth. But by and far, periodontal (or gum) disease is the most common dental condition seen in these domesticated animals.
Eighty percent of dogs over the age of 3 and up to 90 percent of cats over the age of 4 have some degree of periodontal disease. If left untreated, it can lead to similar systemic conditions as we see in humans, including heart and liver disease and kidney failure.
Here’s the good news though: Just as periodontal disease and other dental issues are preventable in people, you can prevent them in your pets, too.
Understanding Periodontal Disease
Periodontal disease is an infection in the gums that results from the buildup of plaque and tartar.
Dental plaque is basically a mass of bacteria that grows on the teeth. As these bacteria accumulate over time, they harden into tartar. Tartar can thicken to the point that it becomes difficult to remove. If it stays far enough away from the gum line, it can be picked away without causing any long-term concerns. But when the tartar gathers below the gum line, it sets the stage for periodontal disease, which ultimately can lead to destruction and deterioration of bone and tissues.
How periodontal disease is treated depends on its severity, which is broken down into four stages:
• Stage 1 consists of mild gum redness and inflammation. This is easily treated with a thorough dental cleaning and, if needed, medicated gels to help reattach affected areas of gum to the root of the tooth.
• Stage 2 is characterized by pockets that start to develop between the gum and tooth. As with stage 1, the animal’s gum tissue and tooth root are cleaned and treated so that the gum and tooth can reattach.
• Stage 3 diagnoses occur when the infected pockets go deeper than 5 millimeters. Usually, this means bone loss has begun. Treatment is more complicated, but with surgery and other techniques, the affected areas of bone and tooth can be saved.
• Stage 4 is the most advanced form of disease, with over 50% bone loss. Tooth extraction is the only option.
Obviously, no pet owner wants the emotional trauma—not to mention high cost—of dealing with advanced gum disease in a furry friend. This is why it’s important to be proactive with your cat or dog’s dental care. This means annual visits to your veterinarian, who should check for tartar, loose or broken teeth, signs of periodontal disease and any abnormal growths or conditions in the mouth.
Of course, if you notice that your pet is acting out of sorts or has any of the following symptoms of periodontal disease, schedule a visit with your vet sooner:
• Persistent bad breath
• Abnormal drooling
• Loose teeth
• Trouble chewing and/or dropping food
• Reduced appetite or refusal to eat
• Swollen, bleeding gums
Brushing Dogs and Cats Teeth
Periodontal disease is five times more common in dogs than it is in humans. Why is that? Well, as you may guess, we humans are accustomed to brushing and flossing daily, which keeps plaque at bay.
When was the last time your dog picked up a toothbrush and brushed his teeth before retiring for the night? Unless Fido is a master magician, the answer is never—which is why pet owners need to take responsibility for preserving pets’ oral health. Dental care for cats and dogs should include teeth brushing and/or giving pets food to gnaw on that, in the wild, would naturally clean their teeth (more on this later).
Usually, veterinarians recommend that pets get dental cleanings. Putting animals under with anesthesia allows vets to clean teeth and gums thoroughly, which would be nearly impossible if the animals were awake. This can be a nerve-wracking process for pet and owner alike, but if a cat or dog needs a deep teeth cleaning, this really is the best option.
In between professional cleanings, many vets consider brushing your dog’s teeth the first line of defense in preventing periodontal disease. Realistically, this is hard. Not all dogs (and especially cats) are okay with having a foreign object into their mouths against their will. So, an abundance of patience and praise are important. Not only that, research has shown that in order for brushing a dog’s teeth to truly be effective, it has to be done at least every other day, preferably daily.
If your dog or cat is a willing participant, then definitely do daily brushings. Simply use a soft bristle children’s toothbrush with a little water or coconut oil. For cats and small dogs, you may want to use a finger brush designed for infants. Do not use toothpaste formulated for people, as fluoride can be toxic to dogs. You can find toothpastes made specifically for animals at your local pet supply store, but they’re not necessary unless your pet likes the taste and it makes brushing easier.
Another way to care for your dog’s teeth is to give him something that, in the wild, would help him remove plaque and tartar on his own: a bone or antler.
Brushing a dog’s teeth can eliminate plaque since it is so soft, but once it becomes calcified tartar, brushing won’t help much. Gnawing on bones or antlers, though—particularly bones with red marrow, such as neck bones or the ends of marrow bones—can scrape away both plaque and tartar.
You can also help keep cats teeth clean by giving them small bones to eat. In the wild, cats eat the whole prey animal, bones and all. So giving your cat chicken bones to chew on (and eventually swallow) can help remove tartar and plaque. As cats eat more carefully than dogs, you don’t have to be as mindful of which bones you give them. Dogs, on the other hand, tend to “wolf” their food, thus you want to avoid giving them leg or wing bones that could split or splinter, and cause damage to the digestive tract. Go with larger bones and knuckles. Rib bones can also work for smaller dogs. Avoid commercially produced dental treats – at best, they remove a little bit of plaque, but they’re also filled with unnecessary ingredients. And most dogs scarf them down quickly, which totally defeats their purpose.
Speaking of food and treats, here’s another helpful cat and dog dental care tip: Avoid giving your pets foods high in carbohydrates. Carbs feed plaque-producing bacteria, so low-carb or carb-free diets result in less plaque and tartar build-up. (In fact, cats’ diets should always be low- or no-carb, since they’re naturally carnivorous and thrive on high-protein, meat-based diets.) Treat dogs and cats to nutritious, high-protein treats instead.
Finally, certain supplements can support your pet’s dental health. At the top of my list is CoQ10, a powerful antioxidant best known for its ability to protect and support heart health. CoQ10 is highly concentrated in the gums, too, and low levels have been linked to periodontal disease. I recommend a liquid formulation, which makes administration quick and easy. A few drops in their food bowl and they’re good to go.
- Cornell University. Feline Dental Disease. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feline-dental-disease. Last accessed March 18, 2019.
- Pet Health Network. 10 Reasons Why You Should Take Care of Your Pet’s Teeth. http://www.pethealthnetwork.com/dog-health/dog-checkups-preventive-care/10-reasons-why-you-should-take-care-your-pets-teeth. Last accessed March 18, 2019.
- Harvey C, Serfilippi L, Barnvos D. Effect of frequency of brushing teeth on plaque and calculus accumulation, and gingivitis in dogs. J Vet Dent. 2015 Spring;32(1):16-21. Last accessed March 21, 2019.
- Prakash, S, et al. Role of coenzyme Q10 as an antioxidant and bioenergizer in periodontal diseases. Indian J Pharmacol. 2010 Dec;42(6):334-7. Last accessed March 21, 2019.
© Dr. Stephen Sinatra. All rights reserved.