Vet Blog

Why Professional Teeth Cleanings Are a Must for Dogs and Cats

February 24, 2022

We all love getting nuzzled by our furry friends but getting a whiff of dog or cat breath can certainly take away some of the pleasure of that bonding experience.

Bad breath often indicates the presence of dental disease and gingivitis. Other signs such as heavy calculus accumulation on the teeth, red or bleeding gums, or changes in ability to chew food or play with toys may also be present. However, most pets have NO clinical signs despite having dental disease. Dogs and cats have developed ways to mask chronic pain day to day as a survival mechanism. Often we don't know that there's anything wrong in the mouth or with the teeth until the disease process is so advanced that the coping mechanism is not enough or visible signs of a tooth infection (such as swelling of the face, eyes, or lips) arise.

Daily oral care is just as important for pets as it is for people. We brush our teeth twice daily and it takes about 48 hours for the soft plaque that accumulates on the surface of teeth to start to harden into hard brown calculus. Daily oral care (brushing, dental wipes, dental chews, brushing toys) should be incorporated for our furry family members as well. We go to our dentist every 6 months to have a deep cleaning that removes the calculus, specifically below the gum line, and once yearly for oral radiographs. While this is something we are prepared to tolerate for the health of our teeth, many would agree it can be a slightly uncomfortable experience. These procedures are just as crucial for pets but do have to be performed under general anesthesia to reduce discomfort and permit us to get a thorough assessment of the mouth, teeth, and gums, as well as to take the dental radiographs that allow us to look for periodontal disease. Keep in mind that both dogs and cats age faster than people so even if we're able to clean your pet's teeth once a year, it's essentially like going to the dentist every 7 years! This is why daily oral care is so important!

During a professional dental cleaning, your pet's teeth are ultrasonically scaled to remove plaque and calculus on the surface of the tooth as well as below the gum line. The teeth are then polished above and below the gum line to smooth out the tooth surface. We obtain complete oral radiographs to evaluate the health of each tooth as well as look for signs of periodontal disease and infection under the gumline. We then probe each tooth individually to check for any damage to the enamel, mobility in the tooth, and any loss of gum attachment to the surface of the tooth. This also gives us the opportunity to assess the parts of the mouth we're not usually able to handle during a routine exam such as the back of the throat, tongue, soft and hard palates, and mucosa on the insides of the cheeks. This is why a dental cleaning at our facility is called a COHAT (complete oral health assessment and treatment).

You may have heard of "anesthesia-free" dental cleanings. These are procedures in which a dental scaler is used to scrape the calculus off the surface of the tooth while your pet is awake. The scaling does produce a more cosmetic appearance of the teeth but this procedure does nothing to address gingivitis or periodontal disease and may be painful or uncomfortable for pets that have these conditions. Scaling is not able to be performed underneath the gum line (it's uncomfortable!), which is where accumulation of plaque and calculus may lead to issues with gum and tooth health over time.

Additionally, scaling the teeth creates micro grooves in the enamel and provides a great scaffold for bacteria to attach to, sometimes leading to heavier calculus accumulation over time. These grooves can be smoothed down with a tooth polishing procedure that will only be tolerated by a pet under anesthesia but is a very important step in the cleaning process. Lastly, as the airway is not protected during these cleanings, bits of the scraped off calculus can end up being inhaled and increase the risk of a lung infection such as pneumonia. We strongly discourage anesthesia-free cleanings as they may give you a false sense of security with seeing a clean mouth (but potentially having tooth decay below the gum line), may make your pet uncomfortable (a sharp tool in an awake animal's mouth may accidentally poke the gums or touch a sensitive/painful tooth), may lead to more rapid progression of dental and gum disease over time, and increases risk for aspiration pneumonia.

So whether you've noticed some funky doggy or kitty breath at home or you'd like to make sure you're providing the best preventive care possible to you pet, please call to schedule a complimentary dental assessment today! We'll get those teeth sparkly white and help address any dental issues we may find along the way to keep your pet happy and healthy for as long as possible.