Dental disease is the most frequently diagnosed medical condition in dogs and cats—affecting roughly 80% of dogs and 70% of cats by age 2. Given that this disease is almost entirely preventable, its prevalence can be perplexing. But we know that misinformation is largely to blame. Dental disease is surrounded by well-intentioned but inaccurate information about pet dentistry, and a misunderstanding of the disease itself.
To clear the air, Palm Valley Veterinary Center is tackling the most common dental health myths and replacing them with helpful information and steps you can take to improve your pet’s dental health.
Myth: Dental disease in pets is not a big deal
Fact: Untreated dental disease can contribute to premature pet death. In addition to extraordinary oral pain from infection, inflammation, tooth decay, and bone erosion, severe dental disease can contribute to heart, kidney, and liver failure. During late-stage dental disease, oral bacteria enter the body’s circulatory system, travel to various organs, and trigger widespread inflammation and injury.
Myth: I’ll be able to tell if my pet has dental disease
Fact: Dental disease exists almost entirely below the gumline and may show little to no signs. In the early stages, oral bacteria and food debris trigger gingivitis—or gum inflammation. Over time, gingivitis creates a gap or pocket between the gum tissue and the tooth, and this pocket allows more bacteria to enter. Once below the gumline, the bacteria attack the tooth root and its surrounding structures. During this process, the tooth’s visible portion (i.e., crown) may remain relatively clean and unharmed—giving the appearance of health.
Myth: My pet is still eating so they’re fine
Fact: Many pets with severe dental disease will continue to eat normally despite pain and discomfort. Therefore your pet’s appetite is not an adequate predictor of their comfort level. The same can be said for most visible disease signs, which often do not appear until the condition is severe. At that point, the only corrective treatment is a dental cleaning with X-rays and tooth extractions under general anesthesia.
Without daily attention to your pet’s oral health, early signs such as gingivitis and tooth sensitivity may go unnoticed. The most notable—and more severe—clinical signs include:
- Bad breath
- Red, irritated, or bleeding gums
- Excessive drooling
- Dropping food
- Facial rubbing
- Swelling under the eye
- Reluctance to chew
- Eating on one side of the mouth
- Visibly broken or discolored teeth
- Visible infection
- Appetite loss
Dental disease is a progressive condition that won’t go away on its own. If your pet is experiencing dental disease signs, contact your veterinarian.
Myth: Pets can’t eat without their teeth
Fact: For the first seven to 10 days after a dental extraction, pets must eat only soft food to prevent trauma and pain at the extraction site. However, after healing is complete, most dogs and cats return to their normal diet. Many pets, including those with multiple extractions and only a few remaining teeth, continue to eagerly eat a dry food diet without any issues. Some small and toy breed dogs and cats may prefer a wet diet, which can be made by softening the dry food with water and pulverizing it in a food processor.
Myth: Hard food is as good as a toothbrush
Fact: If pets chew their food, standard dry kibble provides some abrasion to the tooth’s surface. However, it also leaves bacteria-attracting food particles on the crown and does not create an even or consistent scrubbing action. Additionally, many pets do not chew their food properly, electing to swallow or only briefly crunch some of the pieces—meaning few, if any, teeth would benefit. As in human dentistry, daily toothbrushing remains the gold standard for effective plaque removal and tartar prevention.
For pets who do not tolerate toothbrushing, veterinary dental diets (e.g., Hill’s T/D and Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diet’s DH) can provide a sufficient food-based alternative. Unlike commercial pet foods, these specially formulated diets typically are oversized and made with a fibrous matrix to provide a more consistent scrubbing action.
Myth: Chewing on bones can help break tartar off a pet’s teeth and eliminate the need for dental cleanings
Fact: Pet owners often claim that allowing their pet to chew on animal bones effectively removes calcified tartar and improves their oral health. Unfortunately, while the bones may indeed remove tartar, they also can break teeth. Repetitive chewing on a hard bone creates compressive and shearing forces that lead to painful—and expensive—dental fractures. Additionally, cooked bones and animal parts can splinter and split—potentially resulting in choking, oral lacerations, and upper or lower gastrointestinal tract obstruction or puncture.
Because of the numerous risks, Palm Valley Veterinary Center does not recommend feeding raw or cooked animal bones to dogs or cats.
Myth: Anesthesia-free dental cleanings are safe alternatives for pets
Fact: Non-anesthetic dental (NAD) cleanings have become popular among pet owners as an alternative to traditional veterinary dental procedures. While an NAD sounds like a safe choice, performing dental care on awake pets has its own hazards, including patient stress, injury risk (e.g., aspiration, laceration, and bites), and ineffective care. NAD cleaning does not reach below the gumline where dental disease hides, and does not include dental X-rays—making it impossible to diagnose, determine the stage of, or track dental disease.
Simply put, veterinary dental care requires anesthesia to ensure patient safety as well as accurate and comprehensive care above and below the gumline.
If you have questions about your pet’s dental health, get real answers. Contact Palm Valley Veterinary Center to schedule an appointment.