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The Secrets of Dental Care for Dogs

Donna partners with Dr. Cathy Alinovi, a retired veterinarian, to create informative pet health articles.

Part of good dog dental care is having your pet's teeth professionally cleaned.

Part of good dog dental care is having your pet's teeth professionally cleaned.

Dog Dental Care

February is National Pet Dental Health Month, and one of the goals of this special event is to raise awareness in pet owners about the need for cat and dog dental care. Your dog's bad breath is more than just annoying and stinky; it could be life-threatening.

In today's interview with Dr. Cathy Alinovi of Hoofstock Veterinary Services, we'll learn why it's important to be diligent about your pet's oral health and hygiene. All questions were asked by Donna Cosmato during an email interview on February 5, 2013.

Why Is Dog Dental Care Important to a Pet's Overall Health and Wellness?

Dr. Cathy: If it hurts to eat, our dogs may have a reduced quality of life. Tartar buildup on teeth is really bacteria and debris; these bacteria erode gums, get into the blood stream, and can cause systemic infections.

Bloodborne bacteria frequently travel to the heart valves and cause heart murmurs, and they can travel to other organs and cause dysfunction there. In addition, as pet parents, we like our dogs to have good breath—kisses shouldn’t leave an odor on our skin—that is clearly a sign of a problem.

Is Bad Breath in Dogs the First Sign of Poor Dental Health?

Dr. Cathy: Bad breath can be a sign of tooth infection, sinus infection, or something going on in the stomach, like stomach heat in Traditional Chinese veterinary medicine. Stomach heat comes from eating food that is hard to digest—usually over-processed foods like kibble. Bad breath certainly leads pet parents to look in their dogs’ mouth and see what is going on.

What Other Signs Should Pet Owners Be on the Alert For?

Dr. Cathy: Loss of interest in certain foods, slowing down while eating, dropping food out of the mouth, and even bleeding from the mouth. I’ve seen swollen faces, excessive drooling, and the tongue hanging out where it didn’t used to.

What red flag symptoms signal the need for immediate veterinary care?

Dr. Cathy: Not eating or blood coming from the mouth.

Dog Dental Cleaning Overview

How much, on average, does dog teeth cleaning cost?

Dr. Cathy: There is a huge range on how much a dental cleaning costs. It depends on the region of the country, anesthesia, age of your dog (whether or not pre-anesthetic blood work is recommended), and what other procedures are needed.

Remember, you may take your dog in for a dental cleaning, but the veterinary staff may discover a full dental procedure may be needed. This may include extractions or oral surgery.

Finally, it's important to shop around and compare rates. For instance, I charge $125 for a little dog, but 10 years ago at the Purdue Vet School, they charged me over $600. It depends so much on the vet's philosophy, so you have to interview. Geography matters as well—the fees in New York City, for example, will be about five times the fees in Indiana where I practice.

What Does the Procedure Include?

Dr. Cathy: In a cleaning, the tartar is scaled off the teeth, including under the gum line. Usually, an ultrasonic scaler is used to vibrate the tartar off. Teeth are checked for looseness, cracks, holes, and root exposure.

Some veterinarians offer dental radiographs to see what is going on at root level—again, just like us. Loose teeth are usually pulled, cracks and holes will be evaluated for caries/cavities like in humans, and root exposure may lead to tooth extraction or other prophylactic treatment to preserve the tooth.

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If there is gum overgrowth, called epulis, laser surgery can help return the gum to its normal location, making it easier to keep the teeth healthy. Oral masses may even be discovered.

Once loose teeth are pulled, all teeth are scaled, a high-speed polish, again, just like for us humans, is used to shine up the teeth and remove any staining. Some veterinarians will even offer fluoride treatment (of course, use of fluoride is controversial in any species).

Some veterinary offices will offer a sealing procedure—it is unclear exactly how helpful sealing the surfaces of a dog’s teeth is. Nutrition may be the real key to preventing further dental issues.

What Are the Risks for the Dog?

Dr. Cathy: Most commonly, dentals are performed under anesthesia. Therefore, there is some anesthesia risk. And, as many dental patients are older, recovering from anesthesia may take longer as older patients can sometimes have a difficult time metabolizing anesthesia.

Occasionally, a tooth may break, needing more work for extraction. Very rarely, in very small dogs, jaw fracture can occur. Another risk relates to intubation—many vets pass an intubation tube to prevent water aspiration during the procedure and to maintain anesthesia.

There is a fine line between a snug fit of the tube and too tight. Some dogs may cough for a few days after a dental because of this. Some vets avoid the issue by tilting the head and the table down and do not intubate but use a gas mask instead.

Canine Dental Care

What do pet owners need to know about brushing a dog's teeth?

Dr. Cathy: If the tartar has already built up, brushing the teeth will not make that hard stuff go away. Brushing when the teeth are clean and shiny helps prevent future build up.

What dental products do you recommend?

Dr. Cathy: A soft bristled toothbrush is plenty. This question is better answered by what I don’t recommend: no baking soda, no tooth pastes with sugar, no unpronounceable chemicals in the paste.

Is a dog toothbrush and dog toothpaste all the pet owners need?

Dr. Cathy: It depends on the size of your dog and its mouth. Some dogs do great with a washcloth or gauze pad on the finger. Some dogs do great with a baby tooth brush or an adult brush. You’ll need to experiment. Dog toothpaste is controversial—can your dog swish and spit out the residue?

What's the Difference Between Caring for Puppy Teeth and Adult Dog Teeth?

Dr. Cathy: Puppy teeth need things to chew most of all as the mouth rapidly loses teeth. By six months, the adult teeth should be in so lots of chewing is needed to get through the teething stage. After learning the right thing to chew on, the adult dog will still chew, hopefully not as destructively, and keep those teeth clean. Puppy teeth are more fragile.

What Else Do Dog Owners Need to Know About Taking Care of Their Dog's Teeth?

Dr. Cathy: Some dogs don’t lose all their baby teeth. One important thing about brushing daily is it means you are examining daily, which is perfect! What’s changed? Are there extra teeth that need a little help on the way out? Is there fur build up around the lower incisors? We should be able to stick our hands in our dogs’ mouth and inspect everyday to catch things early.

What are doggie dentures?

Dr. Cathy: Doesn’t that sound awesome! Dogs can have dentures, caps, root canals and prosthetics just like us. These procedures require the services of a specialist. Our pets deserve the best we can afford to give them.

Dog Dental Health Diet

What type of diet do you recommend to promote dog dental health?

Dr. Cathy: I find this is the number one way to keep our dogs’ teeth healthy! No grain, no by-products to get caked on a dog’s teeth; that keeps most mouths healthy the longest. Meat protein keeps the mouth acid so tartar doesn’t build up on teeth. The best way to get meat protein is to feed a balanced meat-based diet.

Carrots, elk antlers, and other hard foods are good ways to keep your pet's teeth clean.

Carrots, elk antlers, and other hard foods are good ways to keep your pet's teeth clean.

Dental Health Products

How can pet owners help reduce or prevent tooth decay and oral diseases?

Dr. Cathy: Feed a great diet and use natural chews like elk or moose antlers. The less processed anything is that goes in the mouth, the less build up that will occur in the mouth; just like humans.

What's your opinion regarding the efficacy of products such as dog chew toys, dental rinses or other dog treats in regard to dog dental care?

Dr. Cathy: Many of these products are self-proclaimed to be great for the teeth. Most rinses or water additives are chemicals that may be proven to work on tartar but have not been evaluated as to how they affect our dog’s internal organs over time. Some of the so-called healthy dog treats have been implicated in intestinal obstruction. The best chew “toy” for keeping teeth clean seems to be antlers and knuckle bones. Antlers and knuckle bones have a pumice effect, they don’t splinter and will last for hours.

Other Considerations About Dog Dental Care

Dr. Cathy adds the following: There is a new trend toward anesthesia-free dental cleanings. This is wonderful for avoiding anesthesia risks. On the downside, the dental technician may have a hard time cleaning under the gums, the patient may squirm, and extractions cannot be done when the patient is awake.

Always interview your vet’s staff. Do they intubate, are all the charges inclusive of the quoted price, how do they charge for teeth that need to be extracted? There are many questions to ask to fully prepare for canine dentistry.

Some breeds are predisposed to poor dental health, and it tends to be the cute little dogs who are already challenged by having big teeth in a little head. Dogs such as Yorkies, Toy Poodles, and Pomeranians have a heck of a time and may need dentistry by two years of age. It is hypothesized these dogs don’t make good oral enzymes or it may be genetic; regardless, toy breeds have more dental issues than large breeds.

Inspect your dog's teeth regularly as part of your pet's dental care regimen.

Inspect your dog's teeth regularly as part of your pet's dental care regimen.

An Ounce of Prevention Beats Any Cure

While a national holiday such as Pet Dental Health Month is a good way to make all pet owners aware of the need for good oral hygiene for their pets, you might want to take Dr. Cathy's advice and make sure you are monitoring your pet's mouth, teeth and gums for any problems on a regular basis.

It's always easier to prevent potential health problems than to try to cure them.

Image Credits

Military working dog dental care Image by The US Army under CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

Will's teeth by ejhogbin under CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

Dog and carrot by andy_carter under CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

Source Material

Undisclosed author, "February is National Pet Dental Health Month, AVMA

Email interview, 02/05/2013, Dr. Cathy Alinovi, Hoofstock Veterinary Services


This veterinary medical information is based on information provided during a telephone interview with a professional, qualified, retired veterinarian. However, it is provided for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own veterinarian. Always seek your veterinarian’s advice about your pet’s health.

While this information is periodically researched and updated (under the guidance of veterinary input) in the attempt to be timely and factual, no guarantee is given the information is correct, complete, and/or up-to-date.

Recommendations as to therapeutics, diagnostics and best standards of practice in the veterinary industry and/or opinions between professionals may differ or change as technologies and information changes. You should not use this article as your sole source of information on any matter of veterinary health or attempt to self-diagnose or treat your pets as the information herein may not be appropriate for your pet. The safest option for you and your pet is to rely on the advice of your veterinarian to diagnose and recommend the best treatment options.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2013 Donna Cosmato

Share Your Tips About Dental Care for Dogs!

Donna Cosmato (author) from USA on February 08, 2013:

Thanks, BlossomSB! I'm glad you liked this.

Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on February 07, 2013:

Really useful information for dog owners here. Thank you for such helpful advice.

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