You’ve probably heard it repeated so often that you should look after your pets’ teeth, but there is a reason veterinarians hammer home the importance of pet dental health. It’s not an exaggeration that up to 80% of dogs and up to 70% of cats will develop some form of dental disease before their second birthday. Whether it’s gum inflammation (gingivitis) or damaged teeth and bone (periodontal disease), the bacteria in your pet’s mouth will firmly establish itself unless something is done about it daily.

In this article, we’ll look at the characteristics of periodontal disease in pets, the symptoms of dental decay, how periodontal disease is diagnosed and what can be done about it. We’ll also examine how your pet’s dental health can impact their internal organs, so if you value your pets’ overall health and longevity, you’ll want to read this.

What causes periodontal disease in pets?

Pet dental care should be prioritised in the same way we prioritise our own dental care: brushing daily, using oral rinses, and getting an annual dental check-up. Without the daily elimination of oral bacteria, it adheres to the surface of the teeth and dental plaque begins to form. When this plaque hardens into tartar, especially around and below the gumline, it causes inflammation in the gums (gingivitis), which – if not treated and removed – eventually leads to periodontal disease.

Periodontal disease is characterised by the formation of periodontal pockets below the gumline, which trap food particles and more bacteria, worsening the conditions for infection. By the time these periodontal pockets form, there can also be early bone loss and damage to the tissue around the teeth. As the inflammation progresses, it can be quite painful for the dog or cat, so you may notice that your pet appears to be in pain while eating.

As periodontal disease progresses, the bacteria may reach into the deep structures of the teeth like the roots and surrounding jaw bone. Some teeth will become loose and abscesses can form, which are difficult to see, but your pet’s breath will deteriorate significantly. Their gums bleed easily and they may even be reluctant to play with their chew toys. Eating kibble may be quite difficult, especially if teeth are loose and painful.

When the infection progresses so far that it enters the bloodstream, it can have a far-reaching systemic impact – meaning the bacteria travel through the bloodstream to major organs. A pet with periodontal disease can develop heart, liver and kidney problems as a result. It’s not a far reach to say that not taking care of your pets’ teeth can shorten their lives.

What are the symptoms of periodontal disease in pets?

The symptoms of periodontal disease may not all be present in your pet, but if you notice any one or a cluster of these, it’s time for a vet visit:

  • bad breath (halitosis)
  • gum inflammation (gingivitis)
  • visible tartar on the teeth
  • bleeding gums/blood in the saliva
  • receding gums, which indicate a loss of supportive structure around the teeth
  • loose teeth/tooth loss
  • reluctance to engage with chew toys
  • excessive salivation
  • different eating behaviours – reluctance to chew kibble or preferring softer foods (sometimes even a lack of appetite)
  • unable to tolerate teeth being brushed
  • pawing at the face/mouth

Keep in mind, however, that many pets have a tendency to hide their pain, which is especially true for cats. An animal that shows pain or weakness in the wild is more likely to be ostracised from the group or to become prey, so they hide the fact that they are not feeling their best. Don’t wait for your pet to show signs of pain before taking them to the vet – at this point the disease may have progressed quite a bit further.

How is dental disease in pets diagnosed?

Dental disease in pets requires a veterinarian to examine the animal’s mouth and identify the signs of the disease. Usually a proper diagnosis can only be made when the dog or cat is placed under anaesthetic, allowing the vet to examine each tooth closely, to look below the gumline to clean out the periodontal pockets and determine the extent of the disease.

The vet may also look at the dog or cat’s overall health and perform tests to see whether their dental disease has progressed from a local to a systemic problem and if it’s affecting their heart, liver and kidneys. The extent of the progression will determine the treatment required to restore your pet’s health as far as possible.

How is dental disease in pets treated?

The diagnosis and treatment of periodontal disease can take place during the same procedure under anaesthetic, as the veterinarian can only really assess the true progression of the disease by examining below the gumline. During the procedure, the vet will also remove tartar build-up using a technique called dental scaling, and clear out the periodontal pockets where necessary. Where teeth have been compromised through tissue and bone deterioration, these teeth may need to be extracted.

The vet will prescribe pain medication and antibiotics to treat any infection. They will also recommend ways to look after your pet’s teeth to improve their health and prevent periodontal issues from recurring.

How to prevent periodontal disease in pets

Taking care of your pets’ dental health requires a multi-faceted approach:


A healthy pet food diet, scientifically formulated to meet the unique needs of your pet, is the cornerstone of their health. A strong immune system can help to fight off bacteria, but it must be supported by a regular dental health routine. Some dogs (especially small breeds with crowded dentition) and purebred cats are more susceptible to the development of periodontal disease, so they should be fed a dental diet, which offers the right protein and mineral profile for healthy immunity, and uniquely shaped dry kibble to mechanically clean their teeth.

Daily oral health care

Given the speed at which gingivitis can develop into progressive periodontal disease, we cannot emphasise enough the importance of preventatively looking after your pet’s oral health. You should familiarise your puppy or kitten with toothbrushing and dental products as soon as possible after their permanent teeth have erupted. Toothbrushing can also be initiated in adult pets, but they will need positive reinforcement techniques to learn to accept this new intrusive activity. While they may not enjoy it initially, pairing toothbrushing with a dental treat and plenty of praise will teach pets to anticipate their dental regimen and associate it with a positive experience. However, daily toothbrushing is just one factor in keeping periodontal disease at bay.

Pet owners also have a wide range of dental products to choose from: water additives, topical gels and sprays not only help to keep pets’ breath fresh, but contain compounds that prevent oral bacteria from adhering to teeth. Ask the vet to recommend the best dental health products for your pet’s unique requirements.

Dental treats & dental toys

Similarly, dental treats and toys are specially designed to be abrasive to dental plaque, with ingredients that help to control bacteria and freshen pets’ breath. However, if your pet refuses to have their teeth brushed, you cannot rely on dental treats alone to get rid of plaque. A clinical trial in 2019 showed that toothbrushing was three times more effective than simply feeding a dental diet supplemented with dental chews. If your pet does not allow their teeth to be brushed (even with highly effective positive training techniques), ask the vet to recommend an alternative teeth-cleaning regimen.

Annual dental check-ups and cleaning

Given the significant repercussions of periodontal disease, it is critical that every pet has an annual dental check-up. The vet will examine your pet’s teeth to determine whether their daily dental routine is sufficient, or whether they need a descaling and polishing under anaesthetic.

Don’t wait until your pets are showing symptoms of pain and disease in their mouths. Take preventative steps to preserve their health and improve their life experience. Let us help by sharing the care of your furry friends!

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