Pet Dental Care 101 - Frequently Asked Questions
What we have in common, what we don't, and how to keep your pets' teeth healthy.
Dogs and cats use their mouths and teeth to maneuver through the world in ways we never will; however, they face some of the same dental disease risks as people.
HealthyPet asked veterinarian Kate Knutson from Pet Crossing Animal Hospital & Dental Clinic in Bloomington, Minnesota, to answer some common dental questions. Dr. Knutson served on the task force that developed the dental guidelines for the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA).
How many teeth do dogs and cats have?
Most adult dogs have 42 teeth, and most adult cats have 30 teeth. For comparison, people typically have 32 permanent teeth.
When do baby teeth fall out, and what happens to them?
This is breed and genetically dependent, so baby teeth will fall out at different times. But in general, around 14 to 16 weeks of age, pets begin losing their incisors (front teeth), with others following in later months. The canine teeth (“fangs”) usually fall out when the dog or cat is between four and six months of age.
A lot of times, people never see the baby teeth after they’ve fallen out because the teeth are swallowed or fall out when pets are outside.
Do pets ever have extra teeth?
Yes. Pets can have retained baby teeth (also called deciduous or primary teeth), where adult teeth and baby teeth occupy the same position, or supernumerary teeth, which are extra adult teeth.
Retained baby teeth are bad, bad, bad. They cause the upper and lower teeth to line up poorly (malocclusion), which can result in gum injury and disease. Retained baby teeth can also alter jaw alignment, causing pain and difficulty chewing. If your pet still has retained baby teeth by five months of age, notify your veterinarian. Baby teeth can force adult teeth out of line, so any retained baby teeth need to be extracted as soon as possible.
Some breeds, such as terriers, are especially prone to having extra adult teeth. These extra teeth, which can grow next to normal teeth or even through the roof of the mouth, should also be removed by your veterinarian.
What is the biggest factor that contributes to dental problems in pets?
The biggest issue is probably periodontal disease, which is inflammation of the teeth’s support structures. Depending on how advanced the disease is, only the gums may be affected (which can be reversed through a professional cleaning) or all the support structures may be involved (in which case there may be inflammation, swelling, bleeding, infection, and bone loss, which will require more extensive work to make the mouth healthy again).
Periodontal disease begins when dental plaque (which contains bacteria) builds up on our pets’ teeth. Plaque re-forms quickly, so if it isn’t removed frequently (through daily brushing and regular cleanings), it will turn into tartar. Unless it is removed by your veterinarian during a cleaning, tartar will eventually destroy the tooth and surrounding structures.
Let your veterinarian know that you want to be proactive and provide preventive care for your pet.
Most dogs and cats have some stage of periodontal disease by the time they are two or three years old. Think about it: If we didn’t brush for years on end, our teeth would be falling out from disease. So it is very important to learn about brushing your pet’s teeth and taking her to your veterinarian for regular oral care evaluations and professional cleanings.
Do pets really need dental x-rays?
Yes. Because 70% of gum disease is below the gumline, without x-rays, you’re missing 70% of the diagnosis, and that’s unacceptable.
Do pets get cavities?
Cavities are rare in dogs and cats. However, many other problems, such as periodontal disease, gingivitis, abscesses, and tooth loss, occur in dogs and cats who don’t receive adequate preventive care, just as these things happen in people who neglect their teeth.
Do pets’ gums recede like people’s do?
Yes. Their gums can recede. Pets also get periodontal pockets, where infections can take hold.
Will a dental cleaning help my pet’s breath?
A thorough dental cleaning and regular brushing at home is going to improve your pet’s breath. Dogs and cats should not naturally have bad breath.
What does it mean when a tooth changes color?
The tooth is either dying or dead. It can turn anywhere from pink to dark purple to black. Certain drugs can also cause tooth discoloration. These teeth aren’t dead or dying, but the staining can be permanent. If one of your pet’s teeth is discolored, ask your veterinarian to take a closer look.
Can pets have root canals performed and crowns placed?
Absolutely. When the root, or inside of the tooth, is damaged or compromised, it becomes infected. If that happens, we either need to pull the tooth or take out the inside, repack the space with a stable substance, and close it off, just like we would do for people.
What happens if my pet has a broken tooth?
If there is root or pulp exposure, the tooth should be extracted or a root canal must be performed. When a tooth first breaks, it really hurts. But then the root dies and the pain lessens; however, the break can still allow infection to grow in the jawbone for years and cause a lot of damage.
Are bones good for teeth, or are they harmful?
Not only can bones break your pet’s teeth, but they can also cause intestinal damage. A wiser option is to choose products that have been developed specifically for dogs to chew on. Ask your veterinarian which chew toys he or she recommends.
What about chewing on sticks?
Dogs can break their teeth on a lot of things, including sticks. If your dog chews on sticks, you need to check her mouth on a daily basis and, if something is broken, you need to get it fixed right away. Wood slivers and splinters can also cause gum and tongue lacerations and gastrointestinal problems, so letting your dog chew on sticks really isn’t the best idea. Ask your veterinarian for ways to nip this habit in the bud.
Are there chew toys that are good for pets’ teeth?
There are many good toys that help remove tartar or massage the gums, but keep in mind that they do not address periodontal disease.
I recommend that clients avoid hooves, ears, rocks, and pizzle sticks. Those are the four things that I have found most often lead to root canals.
What to Expect at Your Veterinary Hospital
During complete veterinary dental procedures, veterinarians and veterinary technicians:
- Use anesthesia and actively monitor patients
- Inspect and chart teeth
- Do a thorough oral exam, including looking for any sign of oral cancer
- Take dental-specific x-rays, looking for dental disease below the gumline
- Clean teeth and gums completely (scale, polish, and irrigate)
- Extract, repair, or stabilize any teeth or repair damaged gums
- Prescribe antibiotics as needed to fully eliminate infections