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Periodontal Disease in Dogs and Cats

Dakota needed dental care—stat. Cathy Pascale’s 10-year-old, white-and-red Australian Shepherd had horrible dog breath, inflamed gums and abscesses, and she knew her pal needed professional care ASAP.

“He didn’t appear to be hurting, but his red, bleeding gums and tartar-covered teeth sure looked painful,” says the retired nurse, who lives on a ranch in Oakland, Oregon, with three other dogs and two horses. “So, I took Dakota right away to my local veterinarian to get his teeth cleaned.”

Eight tooth extractions and hundreds of dollars later, Dakota’s mouth was good as new—and Pascale immediately began a regular cleaning routine to make the most of that $700 investment. Thankfully, Dakota’s a compliant patient.

“He’s so good,” she says. “He lies on his back and lets me brush his teeth every night. He even has his own electric toothbrush! It’s important to me that my dogs stay healthy and happy, and I’ve learned that includes keeping their teeth clean.”

Periodontal disease in dogs like Dakota is common. In fact, the American Veterinary Medical Association says that by the time your dog or cat is 3 years old, they very likely will have some early evidence of periodontal disease, and it only gets worse as your pet grows older. But periodontal disease in cats and dogs is treatable and preventable.

What Is Periodontal Disease in Dogs and Cats?

Periodontal disease, often known as gum disease in dogs and cats or dental disease in dogs and cats, literally means “disease around the tooth,” says Donnell Hansen, DVM, dipl. DAVDC, who practices at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital in Blaine and Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

When plaque, tartar and bacteria collect on the tooth above and below the gumline, they inflame the tissue that supports the tooth, causing the gums and bone to recede and degrade, she says.

“Then more debris accumulates in the pockets and areas of recession, where more inflammation happens,” Dr. Hansen continues. “It becomes a cycle where more inflammation means more attachment loss; more attachment loss means more inflammation.”

Left untreated, dental disease in cats and dogs progresses through several stages, says Bert Gaddis, DVM, DAVDC, owner of Indian Springs Animal Clinic in Pelham, Alabama. Here’s how he outlines cat and dog periodontal disease stages:

Stage 1: Gingivitis, no bone loss; reversible early stage with professional dental care

Stage 2: Gingivitis with early bone loss; reversible with care but sometimes extractions are needed

Stage 3: Additional bone loss, gum recession and periodontal pocket formations; not reversible and extractions are often necessary

Stage 4: Significant bone loss, gum recession and root exposure; expect extractions

Periodontal Disease in Cats and Dogs: Symptoms

Stinky breath, a.k.a. halitosis, is one of the first—and one of the most obvious symptoms—you’ll discover if your pal has periodontal disease, says Dr. Hansen. The stench is caused by bacteria and disease running rampant in their mouth.

“Just like in people, bad breath is not normal,” she says. “Doggy breath or kitty breath is not normal. So strictly from hanging out with the pet standpoint, if you’re smelling bad breath, it’s likely a hint that we need care.”

Once you peek inside the mouth, you’ll see red, angry gums, plaque and tartar on the teeth, and other signs of cat or dog gum infection, says Kimi H. Kan-Rohrer, RDHAP, BSDH, a clinical specialist-dental hygienist at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, University of California, Davis. Healthy gums, she says, should appear pink in color, stippled in texture (which sort of resembles the texture of an orange peel), and firm in appearance.

“In an animal with periodontal disease, the gums are red, inflamed and bleed easily,” Kan-Rohrer says. “You’ll also see gingival recession, tooth mobility, and the dog or cat dropping food from their mouth during eating. Even though pets hide pain well, severe dental disease in dogs and cats can be very painful and can lead to a change in eating habits and behavior.”

Oftentimes, however, a pet will show no signs of discomfort, notes Dr. Gaddis. It’s a survival mechanism that animals have retained since their time in the wild, when sick or injured members are barred from the pack and left to predators.

“Dogs and cats will hide signs of pain,” he says. “And so that’s why professional oral exams and cleanings are so important.”

Periodontal Disease in Dogs and Cats: Treatment

Cat and dog periodontal disease treatment begins with a professional exam by your veterinarian. Your dog or cat’s doc will look in their mouth and typically recommend an X-ray and dental cleaning under anesthesia, Dr. Gaddis says.

“Anesthesia, full mouth dental radiographs and dental cleaning are necessary to fully evaluate each tooth,” he says.

Why anesthesia? Because it’s impossible to examine under a dog or cat’s gumline without it, says Dr. Hansen, and that’s often where periodontal disease in cats and dogs hides.

“In our pets, even in mouths that don’t look ‘that bad’ or don’t need obvious care, there’s a lot to find inside that I’ll often have to treat,” she says. “Without hesitation, without a moment’s pause, we recommend an annual oral exam, dental X-rays and a cleaning to make sure they stay on the healthy track.”

While in the safe hands of pet professionals, your pal’s teeth will be carefully inspected, scraped clean and polished, just like when you visit your dentist, says Kan-Rohrer.

“Cat and dog gum disease treatment options depend on the severity of disease,” she says. “But it will include dental charting with probing, and scaling with hand and power instruments to remove plaque and calculus.”

In cases of severe periodontal disease, teeth must be extracted, Kan-Rohrer says, which is an unfortunate end-stage consequence of dog and cat dental disease.

Periodontal Disease in Cats and Dogs: Prevention

If you’re wondering how to prevent periodontal disease in dogs or cats, Dr. Hansen says it involves:

  1. Being committed to annual or semi-annual oral exams at your veterinarian, and
  2. Daily at-home care using a toothbrush and pet-safe toothpaste.

“With periodontal disease, teamwork makes the dream work,” she says. “Our two best resources to battle periodontal disease are at-home daily brushing and professional cleanings at the veterinarian.”

You might be thinking, Are you serious? I have to brush my dog’s or cat’s teeth?

“Yes, I know it can be impractical, I know you’ll feel kind of silly, but if our goal really is to prevent periodontal disease, just like in people, we use a brush every day, and so your pet should, too,” Dr. Hansen says.

Toothbrushing involves just what you think: Using a toothbrush and pet-safe toothpaste, like Vetoquinol’s Enzadent Enzymatic Poultry-Flavored Toothbrush Kit for Dogs and Cats, to scrub you pal’s teeth. You can find detailed instructions and photos in our articles, “How to Brush Your Dog’s Teeth” and “How to Brush Cats’ Teeth.”

Why is daily brushing with a toothbrush and toothpaste so important? It has to do with plaque transforming into hard-as-concrete calculus, also known as tartar.

“Plaque becomes calculus within 12-72 hours, depending on how you use your spit, how you use your mouth, what kind of saliva content you have and mineral content in your saliva,” Dr. Hansen explains. “Plaque is brush-able; you can brush that off. When plaque turns to calculus, however, it needs to be professionally cleaned off by a dentist or a vet.”

When it sits on your pet’s teeth, tartar becomes a breeding ground for bacteria, which then leads to more tartar and periodontal disease, Kan-Rohrer says. So, it’s best to prevent that tartar from forming in the first place by brushing away the plaque.

Common Questions About Periodontal Disease in Dogs and Cats

Q:

Can you fix periodontal disease?

A:

Experts consider periodontal disease in cats and dogs to be irreversible, so no, you can’t “fix” periodontal disease, but it can be stopped in its tracks, says Kan-Rohrer.

“Periodontitis is considered irreversible because the bone loss that has occurred does not regenerate,” she explains. “It can only be stabilized but cannot return to a full healthy stage. Once diagnosed, treatment should aim to cease the progression.”

Q:

Are rotten teeth painful for dogs?

A:

Yes, they certainly are, says Dr. Gaddis. The inflammation and loose teeth can be a big source of pain—but dogs usually won’t let us humans know about it because they hide pain and discomfort so well.

“They often hide it because of the ‘pack mentality,’” he says. “In the wild, a dog with illness gets kicked out of the pack.”

Q:

What can I give my dog for a tooth infection?

A:

Dr. Hansen offers the perfect answer: “A trip to the doggy dentist!”

All kidding aside, the best thing to give your dog for a tooth infection is care from your dog’s doctor. Your veterinarian is trained to diagnose and handle the problem—so let them do their work.

“If your dog has infected teeth, there’s no middle ground,” Dr. Hansen says. “With dental disease, we really have to seek care. Antibiotics are inappropriate, long term. It’s like this: You have a big sliver, and it’s infected. Well, your doctor can give you antibiotics all day long, but the sliver is still there. It’s not going to get better. Same thing with these teeth. If we don’t address the disease itself, antibiotics aren’t going to do us any favors. In fact, we’re promoting antibiotic resistance.”

Q:

Can cats die from gum disease?

A:

A cat won’t die directly from gum disease. However, says Dr. Gaddis, if a cat’s dental disease symptoms are severe and she has badly infected teeth and gums, that can lead to bacteria in the bloodstream and systemic infections affecting the heart, liver and kidneys that could eventually lead to death.

By: Wendy Bedwell-Wilson

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