What Is Dental Disease?

Dental disease in pets encompasses a range of oral health issues affecting the teeth, gums, and supporting structures. It is a significant yet often overlooked health problem, impacting the majority of dogs and cats by the age of three. Understanding the main aspects and stages of dental disease is crucial for pet owners committed to ensuring their pet’s health and well-being.

  • Plaque and Tartar Formation: Dental disease begins with plaque, a soft, sticky film of bacteria and food debris that forms on the teeth. If not removed through brushing or chewing, plaque hardens into tartar (calculus), a hard, yellowish deposit that forms both above and below the gum line. Tartar is more difficult to remove and requires professional cleaning.
  • Gingivitis: This stage involves the inflammation of the gums caused by the accumulation of plaque and tartar. Symptoms include red, swollen gums that may bleed easily, especially during brushing or chewing.
  • Periodontitis: If gingivitis is left untreated, it can progress to periodontitis. This stage involves the inflammation and infection spreading to the structures supporting the teeth, including the periodontal ligament and jawbone. Periodontitis can lead to the destruction of these supporting tissues, causing tooth mobility and eventual tooth loss.
  • Advanced Periodontal Disease: In severe cases, the infection can create deep pockets of bacteria and pus around the teeth, leading to abscesses and further tissue and bone loss. This stage is very painful and can significantly impact the pet’s overall health, increasing the risk of internal organ diseases such as kidney, liver, and heart disease.

Given the severity and prevalence of dental disease, regular dental cleanings and check-ups are essential for maintaining your pet’s oral health and overall quality of life.

Dr Doug examines a dog's teeth

Have more questions about dental disease in pets? We’re here to help:

Tell Me More About My Pet’s Teeth

Your pet’s dental anatomy is fascinating! At maturity, dogs typically have 42 teeth, while cats have 30. Each tooth is anchored to its respective jawbone by one to three roots, securely held in place by a periodontal ligament. This ligament not only attaches the tooth to the socket but also provides stability. Inside each tooth lies a pulp cavity, which supplies blood, nutrients, and nerves, ensuring the tooth remains alive and healthy.

Pet Tooth Anatomy


Cat Tooth Chart Showing Cats Have 30 Teeth       Dog Tooth Chart Showing Dogs Have 42 Teeth

How Does Dental Disease Develop?

Dental disease in dogs and cats is a progressive process that begins with the accumulation of a biofilm on the surface of their teeth. This biofilm, if not regularly removed through brushing or professional cleaning, hardens into tartar, also known as dental calculus. Tartar provides an ideal environment for bacteria to thrive, leading to infection that can penetrate below the gumline and affect the surrounding bone. This sequence of events is the foundation of periodontal disease, a common dental ailment in pets.

It’s important to note that dental issues can develop early in a pet’s life, with many dogs and cats showing signs as early as three years of age. These signs may include foul breath, visible tartar buildup on the teeth, and inflamed gums. Timely identification of dental problems is crucial to prevent further complications. Left untreated, dental conditions can progress to cause chronic pain and inflammation, significantly impacting your pet’s overall well-being.

To ensure the best possible dental health for your pet, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recommends regular dental evaluations. These evaluations allow veterinarians to detect and address dental issues early on, promoting your pet’s continued health and comfort.

Sequence of dental cleaning in a dog

(A) Plaque & calculus-laden right maxillary fourth premolar. (B) Placement of the ultrasonic scaler tip against the crown before activation. (C) Activation and tuning of the ultrasonic scaler to deliver a cooling and irrigation mist. (D) Removal of plaque and calculus. (E) Removal of plaque and calculus from the developmental groove. (F) Cleaned tooth.

What Is Periodontal Disease?

When dental issues are left untreated, they can progress into periodontal disease, a serious condition affecting the structures supporting the teeth. Tartar buildup, a significant contributor to inflammation and infection, extends beyond the visible surface of the teeth and accumulates beneath the gumline. This buildup leads to inflammation and infection of the gums and surrounding bone, ultimately resulting in deterioration of these structures.

Periodontal disease often becomes apparent during physical examinations conducted by veterinarians. Signs such as visible tartar, swollen gums, loose teeth, and exposure of the underlying bone may indicate the presence of this condition. Identifying periodontal disease early is essential for initiating appropriate treatment and preventing further complications. Regular dental check-ups with your veterinarian can help detect and address these issues before they progress.

Using compressed air to visualize root

What Are the Consequences of Dental/Periodontal Disease?

Untreated dental issues can have serious consequences, including tooth loss and persistent pain for your pet. Surprisingly, pets experiencing dental discomfort may continue to eat despite their suffering, making it challenging to recognize the problem. Periodontal disease, a common dental ailment, causes persistent discomfort that can significantly impact your pet’s quality of life. Moreover, periodontal disease increases the risk of internal organ diseases such as kidney, liver, and heart disease in your pet.

Chronic pain associated with dental problems can manifest in various ways, including increased irritability, lethargy, and diminished appetite. These subtle signs are often overlooked by pet owners but may indicate underlying dental issues. If left untreated, advanced dental disease can lead to severe infections of the tooth roots and surrounding bone, further compromising your pet’s overall health and well-being. Regular dental check-ups and prompt treatment are crucial for maintaining your pet’s oral health and ensuring their comfort and happiness.

Extracted Dog Tooth

How Do I Know Whether My Pet Has Periodontal Disease?

Identifying periodontal disease in your pet can be challenging since they are adept at masking pain. Despite appearing normal and continuing to eat, pets may suffer from painful conditions like loose teeth, gingivitis, or periodontal disease.

By the time obvious signs like bad breath or loose teeth manifest, significant damage has likely already occurred. Periodontal disease often lurks beneath the gumline, invisible to the naked eye. Therefore, the absence of visible symptoms does not guarantee your pet’s oral health.

Early detection of dental issues is crucial for your pet’s well-being in the long run. If you notice any of the following signs in your pet, it’s essential to seek veterinary attention promptly:

  • Chronic Bad Breath (Halitosis): Persistent foul breath can indicate underlying dental problems.
  • Avoidance of Mouth Touch: If your pet avoids contact with their mouth area or reacts negatively when touched, it could signal discomfort.
  • Excessive Drooling: Unusual drooling beyond normal levels may indicate oral discomfort.
  • Difficulty Eating: Dropping food while eating or reluctance to eat can suggest dental pain.
  • Bleeding: Any signs of bleeding in your pet’s mouth, such as blood on toys or food, should be investigated.
  • Changes in Appetite or Weight Loss: Loss of appetite or weight loss without a clear cause warrants attention.
  • Tartar Buildup: Yellowish-brown crust around the gumline may indicate the presence of tartar and potential dental issues.
  • Missing, Loose, or Broken Teeth: Any abnormalities in your pet’s teeth, such as missing, loose, or broken teeth, should be evaluated by a veterinarian.
  • Red, Swollen, or Bleeding Gums: Red, swollen, or bleeding gums in pets are symptoms of dental disease because they indicate inflammation and infection caused by plaque and tartar buildup.

Being vigilant about these signs and seeking veterinary care promptly can help diagnose and address dental problems early, ensuring your pet’s continued oral health and overall well-being.

Kitten Yawning

How Can I Prevent the Development of Periodontal Disease?

Preventing periodontal disease in your pet requires a two-pronged approach: diligent home dental care and regular veterinary dental check-ups.

Home Dental Care: Daily tooth brushing is the gold standard for maintaining your pet’s oral health. While brushing may seem daunting at first, it’s an effective way to remove plaque and prevent tartar buildup. Be sure to use an enzymatic pet-specific toothpaste and a toothbrush designed for your pet’s size. However, it’s essential to note that for pets with advanced dental disease, home brushing without professional assessment and cleaning can be uncomfortable. If you’re unsure about your pet’s dental health, consult your veterinarian before starting a brushing routine.

  • Frequency Matters: Consistency is key when it comes to home dental care. Daily brushing is the most effective way to combat plaque buildup, as plaque can harden into tartar within 36 hours. By removing plaque promptly, you can significantly reduce the risk of periodontal disease.

Regular Veterinary Dental Care: Regular veterinary examinations, including annual oral evaluations, are vital for early detection and intervention. During these exams, veterinarians can visually inspect each tooth, probe around them, and perform dental X-rays to assess hidden structures. These evaluations enable timely preventative measures to mitigate the risk of dental disease progression.

  • Personalized Preventative Measures: Veterinary professionals may recommend personalized preventative measures based on your pet’s unique needs and risk factors. These measures could include dental diets, dental chews, or water additives designed to promote oral health
  • Dental Procedures Under Anesthesia: The cornerstone of preventative dental care is a comprehensive veterinary dental cleaning under anesthesia. These cleanings allow veterinarians to thoroughly evaluate your pet’s mouth, clean each tooth, and perform dental X-rays to identify any underlying issues. This proactive approach helps safeguard your pet’s oral health and overall well-being.
  • Early Detection is Key: Regular dental cleanings are essential for preventing and identifying periodontal disease early. By addressing dental issues promptly, you can ensure your pet maintains healthy teeth and gums for years to come. Prioritize proactive dental care to protect your pet’s oral health throughout their life.

Brushing Dog Teeth

Where Can I Learn More?

Find out more about your pet’s dental health:

  • Learn Why Your Pet Needs a Vet Dental Cleaning here.
  • How to Brush Your Pets Teeth & Best Dental Treats here.
  • Watch Dr. Douglas Dean’s Pet Brushing Technique here.
  • For WoofDoctor on Wheels recommended dental products and other favorite pet products, visit our full list here.
  • Learn Why Your Pet Needs Anethesia During a Dental Cleaning here.

If you’re ready to schedule your dental cleaning, please call us at (843) 966-3362.


  1. American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). (2019). AAHA Dental Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats. Retrieved from https://www.aaha.org/aaha-guidelines/dental-care/overview/
  2. American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). (2020). AAHA Anesthesia and Monitoring Guidelines for Dogs and Cats. Retrieved from https://www.aaha.org/aaha-guidelines/2020-aaha-anesthesia-and-monitoring-guidelines-for-dogs-and-cats/anesthesia-and-monitoring-home/
  3. American Animal Hospital Association. (n.d.). Dental Images – Educational. AAHA. https://www.aaha.org/aaha-guidelines/dental-care/educational-images/
  4. American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC). (n.d.). American Veterinary Dental College. Retrieved from https://afd.avdc.org/
  5. Azarpazhooh, A. & Tenenbaum, H.C. (2012). Separating fact from fiction: use of high-level evidence from research syntheses to identify diseases and disorders associated with periodontal disease. Journal of Canadian Dental Association, 78:c25.
  6. Gardner, A.F., Darke, B.H., & Keary, G.T. (1962). Dental caries in domesticated dogs. Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, 140:433-6.
  7. Glickman, L.T., Glickman, N.W., Moore, G.E., et al. (2009). Evaluation of the risk of endocarditis and other cardiovascular events on the basis of the severity of periodontal disease in dogs. Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, 234(4):486–94.
  8. Hale, F.A. (1998). Dental caries in the dog. Journal of Veterinary Dentistry, 15(2):79-83.
  9. Verstraete, F.J., Kass, P.H., & Terpak, C.H. (1998). Diagnostic value of full-mouth radiography in cats. American Journal of Veterinary Research, 59(6):692–5.
  10. Veterinary Oral Health Council. VOHC Accepted Products.
  11. WoofDoctor on Wheels. Recommended Dental Products.
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