The Most Common Dental Conditions in Pets (and How to Avoid Them)

September 21, 2021 - 6 min read

Dental health problems don’t usually crop up all of a sudden. They develop and worsen over time, and it’s often older dogs and cats who need the most treatment. But looking after your pet's teeth from a young age can help prevent serious dental conditions from developing at all — or at least delay them by several years, and reduce the number of medical interventions you’ll need to make during your pet’s life.

That’ll help your pet live longer, and help you save money.

Expert veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Coates recently shared her thoughts about veterinary dental care care with ManyPets.

According to Dr. Coates, these are some of the most common oral health issues that dogs and cat parents will notice as dental disease progresses, along with some of the symptoms and consequences that'll crop up along the way:

  • Periodontitis

  • Gingivitis

  • Tooth abscess

  • Bad breath

  • Tooth resorption

  • Discolored, loose or broken teeth

  • Red, puffy, receding or bloody gums

  • Receding gums

  • Abnormal drooling

  • Reluctance to chew

  • Weight loss

And FYI, it’s always a good idea to examine your cat's or dog's mouth and gums regularly, as it’ll help you spot any signs of disease before a condition gets more advanced.

Dog getting teeth brushed

Gingivitis

This is one of the most common conditions seen in vet practices. With Gingivitis, your pet’s gums become inflamed, red and swollen, and the condition can even lead to bleeding. Gingivitis can be painful for cats and dogs alike. Still, it’s considered a mild form of periodontal disease (aka gum disease).

Gingivitis develops due to a build-up of plaque on the surfaces of the teeth. Plaque develops because of bacteria in the mouth. These bacteria use the sugar found in food to produce acids that eat away at tooth enamel.

As more plaque builds up, it can even grow beneath the gums, eventually leading to swelling and inflammation. That’s when your pet’s got bigger problems than gingivitis.

While gingivitis is easily treatable with good home dental care or with professional scaling and polishing at your vet, your pet will face a more challenging form of periodontal disease if you wait too long to seek treatment.

Dog lying down with open mouth

Periodontitis

Periodontitis is the more serious and advanced form of periodontal disease, and it also happens to be the most common infectious disease in dogs and cats. It’s an advanced gum infection that damages the mouth’s soft tissue, and can even damage the bone that attaches the tooth to the jaw. In some cases, your vet will have to remove one or more teeth.

In the most extreme instances, the bacteria connected with periodontis can enter a pet’s bloodstream, causing damage to internal organs such as the heart, liver and kidneys. Pet parents don’t often imagine dental health conditions to be life-threatening, but in the worst cases they most certainly can be.

Fortunately, periodontitis can be stopped in its tracks with the right dental care, particularly a professional cleaning. These can be quite costly, however.

Man holding a dog

Bad Breath (Halitosis)

No one expects dog breath or cat breath to smell minty fresh. But the truth is, your pet’s breath shouldn’t make you gag either. If you notice a particularly unpleasant odor emanating from your furry friend’s chompers, there’s a good chance something is wrong. At that point you should check their teeth and gums and arrange a visit to your vet.

The buildup of odor-producing bacteria in plaque is often the cause of bad breath. It's normally a sign of gum disease, and there may also be other issues you and your vet will need to address concerning your pet’s teeth and gums.

According to Dr. Coates, certain dental diets, chews, treats, and water additives can all help reduce the accumulation of bacteria-filled plaque and tartar. Coates advises pet parents to use products that carry the Veterinary Oral Health Council  (VOHC) Seal of Acceptance, which have been shown to be particularly effective

But if nothing else works, there’s a good chance you’ll need to have your pet’s teeth scaled and polished, along with extractions of broken or damaged teeth. This will have to be done in a veterinarian’s office under anesthesia. Professional dental cleanings can go a long way toward eliminating halitosis, since they remove the plaque, tartar and bacteria that caused the problem in the first place.

Again, these cleanings are not cheap! But there’s a way to reduce their cost — we'll explore that soon.

Dog under table

Tooth Abscess

A tooth root abscess is a buildup of pus that’s caused by a bacterial infection. Signs of an abscess can include swollen areas around the face, nasal discharge and excessive sneezing. Another clear sign of an abscess is when your furry friend eats less food than usual, stops eating altogether, or only chews on one side of their mouth.

Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to spot the symptoms before the abscess has reached a somewhat advanced state, as pets don’t always exhibit obvious signs of discomfort or distress in the early stages. And when left untreated, an abscess can lead to tooth loss and even more serious health problems.

So if you think there might be a problem, look inside your pet’s mouth. In fact, you should do that every so often even if you’re not aware of any specific problems.

If there's an abscess, you’ll likely notice swelling and reddening of the gum around the affected tooth. Your vet will then likely recommend one of two solutions: performing a root canal or removing the tooth.

Dog lying down with tongue out

Worn and Fractured Teeth

Your pet’s teeth can be damaged or worn down through day-to-day activities like chewing food and other objects, or carrying toys or sticks. Worn teeth and tooth fractures are most common in dogs, but cats can experience them too.

The good news is there are ways for pet parents to protect their pet’s teeth, or at least slow down the wear and tear. But you may have to rethink some very basic preconceptions about being a pet parent.

For instance, it’s good to give your dog a bone, right? Actually, not so much. Hard objects like bones and antlers are a prime culprit when it comes to tooth damage. Hard pet toys, balls and sticks can also play a role in breaking or wearing away your pet’s teeth.

The wisest thing you can do is limit your pet’s chewing habits to soft toys and chews. And if you have a yard or your dog likes to play outside, try and keep bones, sticks and stones out of reach.

Dog lying in grass

Tooth Resorption

This condition affects cats more frequently than dogs. After periodontal disease, it’s one the most common dental conditions for our feline friends. The majority of cats over age 5 experience tooth resorption.

Resorption takes place when the surface of your pet’s tooth (more specifically, the hard tissue beneath the tooth’s enamel, or dentin) gets worn away or damaged. Resorptive lesions will develop, and the condition can be extremely painful.

And if the condition goes unchecked, the tooth structure in your cat’s mouth will only continue to weaken and decay. When this happens, the affected tooth can break and expose sensitive nerves.

Tooth resorption isn’t always easy to spot early on, since lesions often don’t develop until the later stages of the condition. Once the condition becomes advanced, it’s usually difficult to reverse the damage. By far the most common solution is to simply remove the affected tooth.

Illustration of dog sitting down

Keeping your pet’s teeth and gums healthy

Dr. Coates’s top tips for avoiding common dental conditions include:

  • Brushing, brushing, brushing.

  • Dental diets, chews, treats, and/or water additives to fight plaque and tartar

  • Regularly check your pet’s mouth for symptoms

  • Get your pet a professional dental cleaning

Many pet owners may not know that brushing a cat or dog’s teeth is even a thing. But veterinarians universally recommend regular brushing; it’s the best and easiest way to stave off dental diseases as long as possible. Special diets, treats and chews can yield positive effects as well, but brushing is still best.

Your pet may not love having a toothbrush scrubbing their teeth, but it’s definitely worth persevering. With any luck, your furry friend will get used to the process eventually. Actually, the best way to make your cat or dog a docile dental patient is to get them accustomed to brushing when they’re still puppies or kitties.

And this isn’t just a good way to keep your pet happy, healthy and frisky. It’s also good for your bank account, even if you have pet health insurance.

Keep in mind that pet health insurance policies never cover all aspects of dental care. Some companies will cover accident-related dental treatments only, while others (including ManyPets!) will cover dental treatments stemming from both accidents and illnesses. But no pet insurance companies cover routine cleanings — and those cleanings are expensive, sometimes costing into the thousands of dollars.

The earlier and more often you brush your pet’s teeth, the fewer professional cleanings they’ll need throughout their life. That being said, no matter how diligently you attend to your furry family member’s dental health, every pet will likely need a cleaning at some point.

If the cost of dental cleanings seems a bit overwhelming, you should definitely consider purchasing a pet wellness plan — like this one. Unlike insurance policies, the ManyPets wellness plan will help reimburse you for cleanings when your dog or cat needs them. It’s a good thing, too: Dental care is essential to pet health.