Woof! Do you smell that? Bad breath (halitosis) from your pet could signal a major problem. Don‚Äôt just hold your nose ‚ÄĒ that smelly odor may be the first and only hint that your cat or dog is developing dental disease. Unfortunately, most pets do not show signs of an oral ailment until after it has progressed to irreversible damage. By 2 years of age, 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have begun showing signs of periodontal disease,1 making it the most common health issue in our pet population.

What is periodontal disease in pets?

Periodontal disease is comprised of two main stages, known as gingivitis and periodontitis. Gingivitis begins with plaque (a collection of bacteria mixed with other components) adhering to your best furry friend’s teeth. Plaque especially loves uneven tooth surfaces, such as a broken tooth or an area of missing enamel. Eventually, saliva hardens the plaque into unsightly calculus (also known as tartar), a brownish gray covering on the tooth, which is impossible to remove with at-home treatments.

As plaque and calculus start to spread under the gum line, bacteria causes red, swollen gums (gingivitis). If left unchecked, this inflammation will begin to damage the soft and hard tissues that surround and support the teeth, at which point the condition becomes known as periodontitis. As periodontitis progresses, your pet may develop loose teeth and a receding gum line. You may also notice signs that your pet is experiencing oral pain, such as reluctance to chew, pawing at the mouth, or dropping food out of the mouth.

The bacteria responsible for all that mayhem in the mouth can ultimately affect your pet‚Äôs overall health. In humans, there is evidence linking periodontal disease to health problems such as chronic respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and this may also be true of our four-legged friends. An immune response triggered by the inflammation allows bacteria to gain entry into the body through the bloodstream ‚ÄĒ potentially affecting the heart, liver and kidneys.

Keeping your pet’s oral health in check

So what can be done? Be sure to visit your veterinarian for your pet’s annual health exam and whenever you notice a change in their breath or behavior. Just like their people, pets need comprehensive oral health assessment and treatment (also known as COHAT) that includes:

  • A complete visual examination and dental charting
  • Scaling below the gum line (to remove the plaque and tartar)
  • Polishing (this fills in microscopic defects in the tooth to help prevent future build-up)
  • Dental radiographs (or x-rays)

Pets, however, will not ‚Äúsit‚ÄĚ and ‚Äústay‚ÄĚ for this procedure, so general anesthesia is required to ensure that your furry friend can have a COHAT. In some cases, a visit to a veterinary dental specialist may be needed. Veterinary dentists specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of oral disease and injury in pets. They provide advanced treatments such as complicated tooth extractions, root canal therapy, orthodontics, restorations and advanced surgical techniques.

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The extent of treatment required depends on how long the condition has been allowed to progress. Gingivitis is reversible; while the damage caused by periodontal disease may not be, it’s never too late to treat it and prevent the condition from worsening. It also pays to have comprehensive pet insurance that covers dental illness, so you never have to compromise on your pet's dental health care.

If your pet is showing signs of oral illness, consult with your veterinarian for a specific treatment and prevention program that is tailored to your pet. Your veterinarian can also identify signs of other oral issues, which could include tooth resorption, stomatitis, fractured (broken) teeth, malocclusions, oral growths, retained deciduous (baby) teeth, and many others.

Dr. Aliya McCullough is a Staff Veterinarian and Pet Health Advocate at Petplan Pet Insurance.


1. Wiggs R, Lobprise H. (1997). Periodontology. In Veterinary Dentistry: Principles and Practice (pp. 186-231). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Raven.

Feb 4, 2019
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