In veterinary medicine, February is designated as Dental Health Month. Most veterinarians take care of their patients’ dental health needs every day, but in February we try to increase awareness of the importance of dental health.

According to a study by the American Veterinary Dental Society, 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats have developed significant dental disease by the age of 3. This dental disease is severe enough to require intervention by the veterinarian in the form of anesthesia, ultrasonic scaling (to remove tartar), dental radiographs, and possibly even tooth extraction.

Signs of dental disease in pets include changes in eating or chewing, drooling, pawing at the mouth, bad breath and depression. Many times, these signs are subtle and develop slowly, making them difficult to recognize. If dental disease goes unrecognized for an extended period of time, pets may be at risk for developing bacterial infections of the heart and kidneys, and abscessed teeth.

At the annual wellness exam, the veterinarian will evaluate your pet’s dental health and make recommendations for any necessary treatment. We often find that although our pets frequently don’t complain about dental pain and discomfort, they are happier and more energetic once their dental problems have been resolved.

Your veterinarian will discuss a plan specific to your pet’s needs. Please note that anesthesia is required to treat most problems. There are serious dangers to pets undergoing anesthesia-free dentistry, including laceration of their lips and gums, and distress from being held down and struggling through the procedure. Most veterinarians use safe and modern anesthetic protocols. Feel free to ask your veterinarian about the methods they use. 

In the majority of cases, an ultrasonic scaler is used to clean teeth and allow for close examination. Many veterinarians utilize dental radiography to more thoroughly evaluate teeth for disease. According to a report by the American Animal Hospital Association, “radiographs are necessary for accurate evaluation and diagnosis.” Once the dental treatments are completed, the teeth are polished and the pet is awakened from anesthesia. 

Dental disease can be prevented in large part by instituting a home-care regimen.  The purpose of dental home care is to prevent the buildup of plaque and tartar, thereby preventing bacterial infection and abscesses. Brushing the teeth is the ideal method of home care. You can ask your veterinary clinic staff for a demonstration of proper brushing, using veterinary dental products that are specifically designed for use in dogs and cats.

Other methods for preventing dental disease involve chewing on treats that have an abrasive surface to remove plaque. Your veterinarian can recommend a variety of chew treats and even special diets that are valuable additions to a dental home-care regimen.

If you are concerned about your pet’s dental health, please contact your veterinarian.  You also can look for more information at

Erin K. O’Donnell, DVM, is the owner and medical director at Northwest Pet Clinic, PLLC, in Northwest Tucson. She can be reached at or by calling 742-4148.

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