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Why do we worry about dental disease?

Dental disease is one of the most common conditions we see when we examine animals. Very often the pet has come in for an unrelated problem and bad teeth are found when he or she is given a full examination. Although many people feel that their pet is not showing any signs of dental disease it is worth remembering that animals are masters at hiding signs of pain and so when the teeth are ‘in a bad way’ it is likely that the pet is experiencing at least a degree of discomfort.

There are a few problems that we regularly see that are all part of dental disease as a whole;

(Click on links for photos)
1. Tartar – this is the build up of bacteria and calcified plaque. Teeth covered in tartar appear much larger than they would normally be and are usually yellow or brown in colour. In fact you are not seeing the tooth at all and very large deposits of tartar actually have to be cracked off, usually under general anaesthesia. Only then can a vet assess whether the tooth can be saved or needs extraction.
2. Gingivitis – this is the inflammation of the gums surrounding the teeth. Normal gums are pink but inflamed gums are red and angry looking. They often bleed very easily and are sore to touch. This is caused by contact with plaque or tartar on the teeth.
3. Gingival recession – this is where the gums ‘shrink away’ from the bottom of the teeth, often causing the roots to become exposed. This happens in response long term gingivitis and the build up of plaque or tartar on the tooth. If too much recession occurs and the roots of a tooth are exposed the tooth is likely to need removal, and there is the possibility of a tooth root abscess forming – very painful!!
4. Stomatitis – this is something that we see commonly in cats but less frequently in dogs. It is similar to gingivitis but involves other areas of the mouth such as the lining of the cheeks and the tissue at the back of the mouth. Again these areas bleed readily and are painful to touch.
5. ‘Neck’ lesions – these are seen exclusively in our feline patients and are tiny holes that form through the enamel of the tooth, leading to pulp exposure. Again these are very painful when touched and if present mean that the affected tooth needs to be removed.

As well as the fact that dental disease can cause pain within the mouth itself, it can cause other problems or be associated with other types of disease;


1. The mouth is an area with a large number of blood vessels – this is great because it means that the mouth is able to heal very quickly after any surgical procedures or injuries. However on the flip side, it also means that if the mouth becomes badly infected, it is quite likely that bacteria from the mouth will escape into the bloodstream (remember that gingivitis and stomatitis cause the tissues in the mouth to bleed much more easily than normal). This can make an animal feel very unwell, and if he or she has any underlying problems such as heart disease, could potentially make this worse.
2. If dental disease is left unchecked, tooth root abscesses can form (see above). These can lead to nasty tracts or pathways forming between the mouth and nasal cavity which can cause nasal infections and can be difficult to cure.
3. Dental disease can be made worse by underlying conditions such as kidney disease or, in cats, viral problems such as FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) or FeLV (feline leukaemia virus). This is why in certain instances the vet will recommend blood testing before a dental is undertaken to rule in or out these sorts of problems

What can we do to prevent dental disease?

As always, prevention is far better than cure!! The best way to help your pet guard against dental disease is to brush their teeth on a regular basis – at least once daily. However, this can often be easier said than done and there are frequent looks of horror from owners when this is suggested – and understandably so in many instances - trying to pin down a bouncy Labrador or persuade a reluctant cat to open his or her mouth is pretty daunting! If you have a young pet, then introducing teeth cleaning at an early age can make the whole process much easier – teaching dogs a command such as ‘teeth’ often helps so that they know what to expect. If tooth brushing is not an option (and don’t worry, we will understand!), then modifying your feeding regime so that a ‘dental formula’ dry food is fed as part of the diet and giving regular dental chews can really help.

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