Dogs and cats have dental needs very similar to those of people. In fact, gingivitis and periodontitis are the most common diseases in dogs and cats. According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, by 3 years of age, more than 80% of dogs and 70% of cats show the beginning signs of periodontal disease. Dental disease begins with the accumulation of plaque, a film composed of food particles, saliva, and bacteria, on the teeth. When plaque becomes mineralized and hardened, it is called calculus (also known as tartar). As calculus on the teeth builds up, the gums become inflamed, a state termed gingivitis. If left untreated, the inflammation can spread to the bone and tissues supporting the tooth root, a condition called periodontitis.
As periodontitis worsens, more gum tissue and supportive bone is lost, resulting in bad breath, dental pain with difficulty chewing, and loosening of the teeth. Eventually, most of the loose teeth fall out. Also, as bacteria accumulate in the calculus and inflamed gum tissues, some may gain access to the bloodstream and cause infections elsewhere in the body, such as in the kidneys, liver, and heart valves.
With proper treatment, gingivitis is reversible. Periodontitis is not reversible, but it can be halted and prevented from worsening. Treatment for gingivitis and periodontitis involves a thorough and properly performed dental cleaning, also called a prophylaxis. A dental cleaning is performed the same way whether it is done to treat gingivitis and periodontitis or as a routine preventive health care measure. When a dental cleaning is performed, it is similar to the procedure dentists and dental hygienists perform on people. The main difference is the need for general anesthesia, because dogs and cats simply will not permit a proper dental cleaning to be performed on them while they are awake. First, the entire mouth is examined and each tooth probed for any medical or dental problems. Then, the calculus is removed from both the inner and outer surfaces of the teeth (including under the gum line) with a combination of ultrasonic and hand dental instruments. After all the teeth are cleaned, they are polished smooth to prevent the rapid return of calculus build up. Lastly, stannous fluoride is applied to the teeth to help provide resistance to decay.
Afterwards, daily brushing of your pet's teeth is recommended in order to reduce plaque accumulation and the occurrence or recurrence of gingivitis and periodontitis. Most pets will require repeated dental cleanings over the years, but daily home brushing can reduce the frequency with which professional cleanings are needed. Sometimes, other home care measures may be prescribed depending on your individual pet's dental condition. If your pet requires advanced dental care, such as root canal therapy, tooth restorations, or crowns, you and your pet may be referred to a board-certified veterinary dental specialist for additional treatment.
Pet owners sometimes have concerns about the use of general anesthesia for dental cleanings. They might instead have their pets' teeth cleaned while awake by groomers or other persons representing themselves as qualified to do so. Such individuals often advertise "anesthesia-free" teeth cleanings for pets. Unfortunately, teeth cleaned in this method are merely given a temporary cosmetic calculus removal from only the visible outer tooth surface. No dental examination by a qualified professional is done (causing many dental problems to be missed), no polishing is done, and no fluoride is applied to the teeth. Also, calculus is not removed from the inner tooth surface or from underneath the gum line, which is the most important area to clean since this is where gingivitis and periodontitis occur. It is also very stressful, and possibly dangerous, for many pets to be forcefully restrained for the length of time required to clean the teeth. Lastly, it is actually illegal for anyone to clean pets' teeth unless a licensed veterinarian is on the premises to provide direct supervision. Otherwise, the California Veterinary Medical Board considers this to be the practice of veterinary medicine without a license.