Dental disease: the worst thing not covered by pet insurance

Written by Napo HQ
Reviewed by Dr Peter Spreull
10th Jan 2022
7 mins read
Dental disease is present in 87% of dogs over three years old and 70% of cats. So, it's more of an inevitability than a possibility for your pet.
Given how common it is, and how expensive it can be to treat, many owners will specifically look for pet insurance with dental cover. However, it can be as difficult as pulling teeth to find someone who will protect your pet’s pearly whites. Napo offers pet insurance with dental cover, and all our policies provide help for dental illnesses and injury.
We spoke to veterinarian Dr Peter Spreull about how best to keep your pet’s teeth healthy, saving you money and your pet any unnecessary pain.

So what is dental disease?

Dental disease is also known as periodontal disease, or gum disease. It's where your pet’s teeth and gums get infected. It’s the main cause of early tooth loss in dogs and cats.
It starts as a build-up of plaque on the teeth after your pet eats food. Dr Spruell explains that there's bacteria in plaque which produces toxins. If the plaque isn’t removed through cleaning, the toxins can cause substantial damage to the gum.
Tartar is hardened plaque which appears as a brown layer on the surface of the tooth. If this is not removed by a scale and polish from your vet, it can lead to a snowball effect. Its rough surface attracts more and more layers of plaque, causing further and further breakdown of the outer layers of the tooth.
As the outer layers of gum are broken down, toxins can get to the structures that support the teeth, eventually creating pockets in between the tooth and the gum.
This damage is irreversible and leads to infection, pain and eventually the need for surgical extraction of the tooth.
What’s more, studies seem to suggest that periodontal disease can be linked to early kidney failure. This is because the bacteria can travel into the blood, and then to the kidneys and other internal organs.

What's the cost of dental care?

If your pet insurance doesn't include dental cover, you might have to pay out of pocket to treat your furry friend. Here’s a breakdown of what some of the costs can be if your insurance doesn't include dental.

Tooth extraction

Periodontal disease can be really painful. In cases like this, it is always preferred to remove a tooth than to leave your pet in pain. But if major extractions are required, costs can be nearly £1000.
Basic extraction is the removal of incisors or premolars. Dr Spreull says: “that could be anywhere between £300 and £600. But, of course, the price varies massively depending on the size of dog or cat and the time it takes.”
Major extractions are the removal of back molars or canines, and can cost upwards of £800. This is due to the structure of their roots. Canines, for example, can have a root even longer than the tooth itself.
As Dr Spruell says, “You can't just ‘wiggle them out’, to use the technical term. A vet would need to create a flap in the gum and cut away the bone on the outside of the face. You then extract each root sideways, for some molars, this involves cutting the tooth into pieces first.”

Scale and Polish

Scale and polish is the ideal procedure to avoid periodontal disease. It’s the only way to effectively remove tartar from the teeth. This create a ‘clean slate’ that can be maintained by everyday dental care.
Although not an invasive procedure, scale and polishes require your pet to have a general anaesthetic. This adds expense, and the costs vary depending on the size of the pet.
“A cat, for example, uses a lot less anaesthetic agent than a great Dane or greyhound. A cheap cost for a scale and polish would be £160 for a cat. Then it could exceed £300 for Greyhounds.’’

How can you help at home?

Prevention is the key to dental health, Dr Spreull advises. Before tartar develops, there are several ways of removing plaque to keep your pet’s teeth healthy at home. These methods can be either mechanical cleaning or chemical cleaning.

Mechanical cleaning

Chewing food.
Certain shop-bought snacks are ideally formulated for getting your pet to chew using their back molars. However, Dr Spreull warns that some of these chews can be quite fatty. Foods such as whole carrots and broccoli can be used instead if weight gain is a concern in your pet.
Chew toys.
Firm rubber toys, rope toys, or durable stuffed toys can work for dogs. They can be a fun way to scrape plaque off teeth.

Chemical cleaning

Powder supplements.
Nutritional supplements in powder form can be added to your pet’s food. These have been developed to combine with your pet’s saliva to remove plaque, reduce tartar and freshen your pet’s breath.
Water additives.
Like a drinkable mouthwash, these can be added to your pet’s water bowl to help reduce the risk of gum disease and get their breath smelling a little fresher. This isn’t to be confused with human mouthwash which is highly toxic for pets.

Combined mechanical and chemical cleaning

Dental care biscuits.
This is a great option for cats! Dental care biscuits not only contain chemical elements that clean away plaque, but also special fibre matrixes that pull plaque off the teeth.
Tooth brushing.
Brushing your pet’s teeth with a pet-safe toothpaste is the gold standard for prevention, because it combines mechanical and chemical cleaning.
Dr Spreull recommends warming up your dog, or very tolerant cat, slowly to the idea of brushing. You can start things off by letting your pet lick toothpaste off your finger for a few days. Next, move on to letting them lick it off a toothbrush.
Diligent owners may brush their pet’s teeth several times a week, however once a week can be enough.
Some dogs, like Hector the French Bulldog, genuinely enjoy having their teeth brushed. 
His owner, Grace, was told by the vet to brush his teeth more as French Bulldogs are prone to dental problems, especially in old age. She says, “Luckily Hector thinks it’s a game, which is great because it means I can brush his teeth daily and he doesn’t mind at all.”

How can you tell if your pet’s teeth need TLC?

Some breeds are much more prone to dental issues. For example flat-faced breeds, like French Bulldogs and Persian cats. Also small dogs, like terriers and Chihuahuas. This is because they're more likely to have tooth crowding, which means food and plaque become trapped. Greyhounds are also known for their terrible teeth, Dr Spruell notes. Luckily, there's plenty of things you can do at home to keep their teeth clean and healthy.

Warning signs of dental problems

Bad breath.
Dogs and cats aren’t exactly renowned for their good breath, but it can be a sign of dental issues if your furry friend’s breath is particularly bad.
Difficulty eating.
Tooth infections can be quite painful, although some animals have a very high pain tolerance.
Visible plaque and tartar.
Dr Spruell warns that many owners will take a quick look at the front teeth up to the canines, or maybe the premolars, and believe that their pet doesn’t have any issues.
But actually, the worst teeth are the very back molars.
“At the surgery, we like to advise owners to really look at their dog's teeth. Try and get a good look along the gumline all the way back but, of course, only if it's safe."
“We always say as long as it's safe to do that, because some pets might not tolerate it!”

Vet check-ups

It’s important to have your vet check your pet’s teeth regularly as well. These are usually carried out during standard check-ups and vaccination appointments. This is vital to keep on top of any developing issues.
It’s also important because to claim for dental treatments with pet insurance with dental cover like Napo, your pet needs to have had an annual dental check-up in the prior 12 months.

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