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When Should I Start Cleaning My Pet’s Teeth?

Posted 02.01.19 by Dr. Katie Morrill, DVM

Many pet owners understand that their pets will eventually start needing dental cleanings, but when is the right age to start? There is no easy answer! It depends on each individual animal. As a general rule, larger breed dogs keep their teeth cleaner longer, and small breed dogs (I’m looking at you, Yorkies and Chihuahuas!) start needing cleanings at a younger age. When we shrunk down the mighty wolf to the size of a Maltese, we actually didn’t shrink the teeth proportionally. As a result, tiny breeds have relatively large teeth for their mouth, causing crowding and trapping of food and bacteria. Cats on the other hand  — they do whatever they want. Most domestic cats are around the same size (barring the Garfields of the world), but their dental health varies widely from one feline to the next.

So when should you sign up for that first dental? WHEN YOUR VET TELLS YOU IT’S TIME!

Take exhibit A, my own crazy-pants Australian Shepherd, Bowie. Here he is filling in as an assistant one afternoon:

Dog in scrubs

But lately, I had noticed Bowie’s breath was getting a little too dog-like. I don’t know how I’d ever be in a position to appreciate this:

Open dog mouth

So I checked bloodwork on my 4 year old friend, and it looked great. We do this to ensure that animals are healthy enough for anesthesia, because EVERY dental cleaning should be done under full gas anesthesia with a tube in the windpipe to protect the airway. Bowie didn’t get breakfast the day of the procedure, because we want an empty stomach before anesthesia. This made him a little grumpy. But he was pretty laid back after getting his pre-anesthesia cocktail:

Loopy dog

Once Bowie was under anesthesia, I took a video to document his tartar (aka dental calculus) and gingivitis. You can see the red line where the gums touch the tartar. This is the very first sign of periodontal disease! This line will blanch when pressed on, then return.

Capillary refill gif

Tartar alone is not the real problem. The inflammation and ultimate breakdown of the gums and the periodontal ligament – which attaches the tooth to the skull – are the true culprits. Dogs and cats don’t typically get cavities like us humans. Instead, this periodontal disease is the major kind of “dental” disease that we veterinarians encounter in our furry patients.

Here we see Bowie’s teeth post scaling and polishing.

Dog teeth after dental

Full mouth x-rays were also take to ensure his tooth roots were healthy, because a HUGE proportion of periodontal problems exists BELOW THE GUMLINE!

Upper 4th premolar dental x-ray

Upper 4th premolar roots on a dental x-ray

All in all, Bowie had a straightforward, routine “prophylactic” dental cleaning. With his mild level of tartar and gingivitis, a cleaning completely corrected his periodontal disease. Any more extensive disease is not reversible, however, so don’t wait until YOUR pet has wiggly teeth or receding gums before starting dental cleanings! And remember, plaque and tartar start to reform within 48 hours of a cleaning, so make sure to practice good at home care to stretch out the time before your pet needs its teeth cleaned again. You can find a list of studied and approved dental products at VOHC.org.

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