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Natural Awakenings Westchester / Putnam / Dutchess New York

Dental Health Is Important for Dogs (and Cats Too)

Jan 31, 2021 10:09AM ● By Dr. Alex Barrientos

by Dr. Alex Barrientos

We seek the best foods, toys and veterinary care for our pets, but prioritizing our resources can lead to daunting decisions. Dental care is no exception. Which dental chew is best? Should I brush my dog’s teeth daily, or leave it to my veterinarian to clean them yearly? Does my cat really need a yearly dental cleaning under anesthesia—and is it safe?

As a veterinarian, I tell my clients to start with a good diet, provide safe chew toys and treats, and, if possible, brush their pet’s teeth with a dog/cat safe toothpaste.

Still, I send well-meaning clients home with toothbrushes and toothpaste only to find out at their next appointment—often six months or a year later—that 90 percent of them can’t consistently brush. In some cases, their pets would hide (or even bite) when approached for this routine. In other cases, time was the issue. If you fall into the successful 10 percent, you’re lucky. As for the rest of us (including me, a veterinarian with five dogs and four cats), a safer, less time-consuming method of dental care is required.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has declared February National Pet Dental Health Month to make pet owners aware of the importance of keeping their dogs’ and cats’ teeth clean. So how bad is it not to do that? After all, dogs and cats were never meant to brush their teeth. Why intervene with nature? As a pet owner and veterinarian, I can say without a doubt that there are many reasons to intervene and be proactive with our pets’ dental health—not just for their benefit, but for ours too.

Yes, getting a pet’s teeth cleaned can prevent terrible breath and brown teeth, but that only scratches the surface of a much bigger issue. There are many health reasons to keep a pet’s teeth clean, and any dog or cat with terrible breath and brown teeth needs a dental examination.

Bad breath is often the first sign of gum disease that can also be the start of significant health issues in pets. Eighty percent of dogs have some degree of periodontal disease by age two. Some cats and toy dog breeds are genetically predisposed to gum disease, thereby placing them in danger of developing systemic, irreversible diseases at a younger age. Oral bacteria can enter the bloodstream through unhealthy gum tissue, and this can cause damage throughout the body.

Here are some diseases caused by poor dental health:

•  heart valve infections leading to permanent heart disease

•  tooth loss / painful cavities

•  bone infections / loss of jawbone

•  liver infections

•  ear infections

•  kidney disease

•  malnutrition and weight loss

•  stress / unsocial behavior due to chronic pain

•  infections passed on to people through bites and scratches


So what’s the best way to start a dental health routine for a dog or cat?

1) Shoot for at least one brushing a week. Brushing a dog’s teeth is not an easy task. It’s best to start when they’re very young to get them used to the process. Same with cats. Use a pet-safe toothpaste and toothbrush. Fluoride in human toothpaste is highly toxic to pets, and toothbrushes meant for humans may be bitten off and swallowed.

2) Ask the vet. Make an appointment for an exam and professional advice, which may range from adding dental chews and rinses to scheduling a dental cleaning. Cleanings are usually done once a year, although most vets recommend every six months, especially for smaller dogs and some cats that are prone to periodontal disease. 

3) Weigh risk and cost versus health and happiness. There’s always a small risk of complications with anesthesia. One way to lower this risk is to maintain the pet’s oral health from the time it’s young. Don’t wait until a dog or cat has had chronic infections from poor oral hygiene to undergo a dental cleaning. Most organ diseases caused by chronic poor oral health that increase risk under anesthesia can be lessened and even avoided with early dental care and intervention. Also, dental cleanings done prior to advanced dental disease take less time and are less traumatic.

Every dog and cat owner should partner with a trusted veterinarian to create a good oral hygiene plan for their pet. It will live a longer, healthier, more comfortable life if its teeth are healthy.

Dr. Alex Barrientos is the owner of Earth Angels Veterinary Hospital located at 44 Saint Nicholas Rd., Wappingers Falls, NY. For more info, call 845.227.7297 or visit

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