Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Brush Up on Preventing the Most Common Disease in Dogs and Cats


Pet Column for the week of November 8, 2010

Related information:

Related site - Veterinary Oral Health Council
Services - Dentistry

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Brittany Way
Information Specialist

Call it "gingivitis," "periodontal disease," or another term related to gum disease, but it amounts to the same thing: if you're not paying attention to the health of your pet's mouth, the problems that arise there could come back to bite you.

Gum disease is the most common disease affecting dogs and cats, according to the Veterinary Oral Health Council. Its consequences go far beyond bad breath. In fact, left untreated, gum disease can lead to bacterial infections that spread throughout your pet's body. That's why, just like people, pets need routine cleaning and brushing to keep their teeth and mouths healthy.

How do you tell your animal has periodontal disease? Unfortunately, there aren't many overt signs, but according to Dr. Mary Buelow, a veterinary dentistry resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, your pet may have a diminished appetite, may suddenly prefer canned food to dry food, and may even drop pieces of food when eating. You may also notice bleeding or loose teeth. However, you may see no clinical signs at all, which is why visits to your veterinarian are so important.

If you do notice signs, a dental exam is in order. In addition, your pet's teeth should always be checked as part of routine visits to your veterinarian, with dental cleanings performed as needed. Although certain breeds have a predisposition for periodontal disease, including small breed dogs and greyhounds, all pets can develop periodontal disease. Regular dental cleaning is imperative to detect and prevent gum disease.

What happens in periodontal disease? First, plaque builds up on the teeth. Gradually the bacteria in the plaque invade the gingiva (gums) and other tissues. Without treatment, bone and soft tissues around the tooth can be lost to infection, and eventually the tooth itself will be lost. In time, the bacteria can enter the bloodstream and affect the overall health of your pet.

Fortunately, you can prevent tartar and plaque from building up by brushing your pet's teeth. Many styles of toothbrushes and flavors of toothpastes specifically for pets are available. Dr. Buelow notes that feeding dry food can potentially be helpful, but that practice alone will not prevent periodontal disease. The Veterinary Oral Health Council maintains a list of special diets and other products approved for reducing plaque and tartar buildup; see http://www.vohc.org.

For more information about your pet's dental care and oral health, speak with your local veterinarian.