Staying on top of your pets’ oral hygiene is a crucial part of keeping them healthy. Undiagnosed periodontal disease doesn’t just affect an animal’s teeth; it dramatically affects overall health — untreated, it can lead to inflammation and tooth loss and also contribute to other medical problems like kidney disease and other serious illnesses.

As a veterinary professional, I advocate a holistic approach to pet health, and proper dental care is a critical part of that equation. We can’t think of the mouth as separate from the body — it is actually the gateway to the body.

When a pet’s mouth is in pain, it not only makes eating uncomfortable and curtails the ability to make natural facial expressions but, because dogs and cats use the mouth similarly to how people use their hands and fingers, it prevents them from naturally interacting with the world. Maintaining good dental health is one way of ensuring that your pet can explore, communicate and socialize.

Since pets can’t talk to you and tell you they’re in pain, it’s up to you to notice signs of dental issues. Indications of possible problems include dropping food, refusing to eat, chewing only on one side of the mouth, having unusually terrible breath, excessive drooling, blood from the mouth when chewing and visible problems inside the mouth like gum inflammation or loose, broken or discolored teeth.

Unfortunately, because animals operate by instinct, they are often good at hiding pain until it’s too late. Instead of letting the problem get to that point, it’s best to practice prevention. In addition to regular oral care at home, it’s important to have your pet’s mouth professionally examined when they are young to check for congenital problems and then examined at least once a year thereafter (though it’s not a “one-size-fits-all” schedule; some breeds or animals with particular genetic developmental issues or previous injuries may need more frequent exams).

During the exam, your pet will be placed under short-lasting general anesthesia; this ensures safety and comfort for your pet and enables the vet to conduct a more thorough inspection, including checking the depth of the periodontal pockets. Dental radiographs will show bone loss, abscesses, foreign bodies and impacted teeth. The oral exam will look for developmental/ occlusion problems, signs of periodontal disease, oral tumors, and plaque and tartar buildup as well as other problems.

After the exam and radiographs, a deep cleaning and scaling will remove plaque and tartar from the tooth surface (both above and below the gum line), and polish will be applied to keep the surface of the teeth smooth, which helps keep plaque and bacteria from sticking. Your vet may also apply sealants or a fluoride treatment to help fortify the tooth surface and prevent possible decay.

Once your pet comes home with a healthier mouth and nice clean teeth, help keep them that way. Establish a cleaning routine, brushing teeth frequently with gauze or a special pet toothbrush and toothpaste made specifically for dogs or cats. Feed your pet a quality food designed to maintain both overall and oral health, and when it comes to treats, choose carefully — while chewing on good quality treats can help to decrease plaque and tartar buildup, some common pet treats are likely to cause other oral problems like fractures. Any chew toy you can bend with your hands is safe for your pet’s teeth.

Being proactive about dental health will help keep your pet healthy, happy and a beloved companion for years to come.

In addition to regular oral care at home, it’s important to have your pet’s mouth professionally examined when they are young to check for congenital problems

 Amy Stone, Ph.D., DVM, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences and the Service Chief of the Outpatient Medicine and Dentistry Service in the Small Animal Hospital, both at the University of Florida. Dr. Stone graduated with her DVM degree in 1999 and her Ph.D. in 2002 from the University of Florida, with research interests in dentistry, immunology and vaccinology.