Gum disease in dogs and cats

Dental disease is a common problem in pets.  In fact, 85% of pets over 3 years of age suffer from periodontal disease.  This is usually in the form of gingivitis [inflamed gums], which is also a problem for us.


What are the signs to look for with dental disease?  Bad breath is the most frequent finding.  Our pets don’t eat foods that result in bad breath hence their breath should not be unpleasant for us.  Even “fish breath” [commonly described by owners when talking about their pets] is a sign of plaque build-up.

Plaque is a mixture of food particles, saliva and bacteria.  This material attaches to the surface of the teeth and needs to be removed mechanically [such as gnawing bones or brushing of the teeth].  If it is not removed, it will mineralise to form calculus or tartar.  It is the bacteria in plaque that causes all the damage.  The gums become inflamed [and bleed easily] due to the bacterial invasion of the tissues.  If the disease goes untreated, the infection spreads to the deeper tissues and bone supporting the tooth.  Eventually, the tooth becomes loose and will fall out.


The infection associated with the dental disease affects other organs in the body.  The bacteria are released into the blood stream as the animal chews and can damage the heart, liver and kidneys.  This, in turn, will shorten your pet’s life.

Gum disease is painful.

It is rare for dogs and cats to show any oral pain.  These two statements seem at odds with each other don’t they?


The reason that our pets don’t exhibit oral pain is that they are fundamentally pack animals.  Hopefully, you are their pack leader.  These same pets are genetically programmed not to show oral pain to the pack, as it would be seen as a weakness by the rest of the pack.  They would then either be killed or allowed to starve – the rest of the pack will not provide food for them.


We know that the pain is there.  Once the condition is resolved, most owners report that the animal is livelier and more playful [often the comment is “it’s acting years younger”].

What can we do about this problem?  Once the animal has periodontal disease, the teeth need to be professionally cleaned.  Unfortunately, this will require a general anaesthetic to allow cleaning under the gum line.  Just removing the calculus [tartar] from the surface of the teeth is not helping the pet at all.  The bacterial plaque needs to be removed from below the gum where the disease is occurring.  Once the teeth are cleaned and polished [the same as we have], the owner needs to take steps to prevent it recurring.

 This needs to be done daily with toothpaste designed for use in pets.  Remember that they will swallow most of what you put in their mouth [I find it hard to get them to rinse and spit!].  For this reason don’t use human toothpastes or products such as bicarb of soda or salt.  The body weight of most pets will make these toxic if swallowed.


Obviously, most people suggest using “natural” products for control of dental disease.  In the wild these pets would hunt, kill, dismember then eat the prey.  Just feeding some bones is not a natural diet [only some of the teeth will be used for chewing].  Also, in the wild, dogs and cats live for much shorter life spans and dental disease is the most common reason for this – so much for the natural diet!  Having said that, any chewing is a benefit, especially if brushing is also used.

The vet can easily assess your pet’s dental needs and advise you on the most appropriate method of prevention and control of dental disease.



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