Straight From the Dog’s Mouth: Addressing Dental Health

Derm Connection

Straight From the Dog’s Mouth: Addressing Dental Health

“We are what we eat” is an old saying that has many meanings, from nutrition to the secondary effects of food on our bodies.

One of the first places we see the effects of food in our pets is on the teeth and gums. 

In past years, we did not put much emphasis on oral care, but we have now found that good dental health plays a vital role in the health, wellbeing and longevity of our pets. Chronic shedding of bacteria from an infected mouth not only affects the pet in the short–term, but it often causes damage to the organs, thus affecting long–term health as well.

The mouth is made up of bacteria and saliva (which contains enzymes) that, when mixed with food, start the digestion process with both a mechanical aspect as well as a chemical or enzymatic action. This same combination is the precursor to the tartar and debris that build up on the teeth. Tooth enamel is naturally smooth, but as this combination of bacteria, saliva and food dries on the tooth, it roughens the surface and the deterioration of the healthy tooth begins. As the tooth becomes more roughened, the calcium and other mineral products are deposited, producing what is referred to as “tartar” on the tooth.


If you look at the bite of most dogs and cats, they have what is called a “scissor bite,” meaning that the upper arcade will clean the lower arcade. Since the tongue does a sufficient job of cleaning the insides of the teeth, the most vulnerable is the outside of the upper arcade. Dogs and cats cannot clean this area with their tongues, so even in the worst mouths, this is where the vast majority of the tartar and debris are trapped. Once the tartar starts to form, the tooth is behind a power curve and will often require a dental prophylaxis (cleaning) to restore the tooth back to a healthy state.

A dental prophylaxis, or prophy, consists of several steps. First, any large pieces of tartar need to be extracted off the teeth. The second step is to either use a hand scaler or an ultrasonic cleaner (instrument that vibrates to loosen the tartar) to remove the remaining debris. This instrument must be kept in constant movement or it will overheat the tooth causing heat damage. The concern of heat is also the reason to first remove the bulk of the tartar, otherwise too much time on a tooth could damage it. The third step (and an especially important one) is to polish the tooth with an abrasive to remove scratches and any roughening on the tooth. If this step is skipped or not done correctly, it will often leave the tooth rough or etched which promotes the rapid buildup of tartar. Next, a Fluoride treatment should be applied to strengthen the tooth and to fill in the micro–etching in the tooth. Sealants are now commonly used after the fluoride to further protect the tooth and to prolong the time between prophys.

Most dogs and cats will need their first cleaning somewhere between two and four years of age. Certain breeds as well as any dogs that do not naturally play with toys or eat hard kibble tend to build up tartar much faster. This is due to the lack of cleaning effect from the toys and the fact that soft food often gets lodged in that area of the upper arcade and the lip.

The best method of cleaning the teeth requires full anesthesia so that the debris underneath the gum line can be cleaned properly. This can be uncomfortable and even painful, so pets do not tolerate it well while they are awake. A new trend is to do anesthesia–free dentals which has mixed reviews because it is difficult to do the sub gingival (below gingiva) cleaning. 

Each state is different, but most consider cleaning the teeth a medical procedure that needs to be done under the direct supervision (meaning physically there) of a veterinarian. Whether you are going to do it yourself or hire someone else to do it in your salon, read up on the laws of your state so that you do not risk legal ramifications. 

When cleaning the teeth, the most important area to be concerned about is under the gum (gingiva) line. This is the location that we see the most cavities (especially in cats) and infections. If not resolved, these gum infections can progress to bone infections. If the bone becomes infected, there are multiple possible consequences. When bacteria are shed into the system, the body must deal with it. One of the most common effects seen is chronic urinary tract infections. Secondary conditions such as heart valve lesions, heart issues and kidney issues can also commonly occur.

Another consequence of an infection in the gums and gum line (gingivitis) is infection of the bone associated with teeth. Left unchecked, the bone will eventually be broken down around the tooth. This will cause the tooth to become loose and eventually fall out.

When it comes to the health of pets, prevention is the key to totally inhibit or delay the onset of any disease. Brushing the teeth daily (concentrating on affected area) is the best method of prevention. The keyword is daily—any less than that will allow roughening of the tooth surface and the process will be initiated. 

Many treat companies have spent much of their marketing budget trying to convince pet owners that their dry treats and food will clean teeth. This may have a bit of truth to it, but really only the very tip of the tooth is cleaned, because after the dog bites down, the kibble crumbles. The majority of the pathology is at the gum line. 

There are various enzymes on the market designed to add to drinking water to dissolve the calcified tartar. My concern has always been, if it dissolves tartar, does it etch the tooth or remove the calcium from the tooth itself? I personally have not seen consistent results with the products that I have tried.

Chew toys, hard treats and dry food are all great methods to remove the debris at an early stage. Just be aware that not every suggestion will work or is safe for all pets. Be proactive and find the most successful solution for the health and wellbeing of each individual dog, and advise your clients to do the same. ✂️


Dr. Cliff Faver

Dr. Cliff Faver graduated with a BS in Biology/BA in Chemistry before getting a Veterinary degree in 1987. He is the past owner of Animal Health Services in Cave Creek, Arizona and now the US distributor for Iv San Bernard products, teaches the ISB Pet Aesthetician Certification program, and speaks internationally on hair and skin. His passion is to merge groomers and veterinarians to aid in helping and healing pets. He is also a member of AVMA, AAHA, AZVMA, Board member with Burbank Kennel Club, and has served on Novartis Lead Committee, Hill’s International Global Veterinary Board, and a Veterinary Management Group.

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