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From plaque to extract: how dental disease progresses in pets

Written by Napo HQ
Reviewed by Dr Louisa Lane
22nd Apr 2022
6 mins read
Dental disease is the most common infectious disease affecting our pets, and it’s entirely preventable. You should look after your pet’s teeth the same way you do yours, with routine dental checks and daily brushing. This can save your pet the pain of dental disease, and save you the stress and cost of treating the problem.
Periodontal disease (dental disease) is the most common dental condition in dogs and cats, affecting 87% of dogs and 70% of cats over three years of age. It’s also the most common infectious disease in dogs.
Given how likely it is that your pet could contract this painful condition, we’ll reveal what periodontal disease is, how it spreads, and what you can do to manage it.

What is periodontal disease?

Periodontal disease means that the tissue surrounding the tooth (the periodontium) has become inflamed, infected, and possibly even irreversibly damaged.
The periodontium is made up of four different tissues, each one progressively deeper inside the gum. As dental disease progresses, it begins to infect each of these deeper tissues until it eventually infects your pet’s jaw bone.
At first dental disease will cause inflammation and infection in the gingiva (the gums) which is reversible with appropriate treatment at the vets.
But as the infection moves into the deeper tissues of the gums, it leads to severe inflammation, receding gums, pain, and bone loss. At this stage, the damage cannot be reversed, and it can cause your pet’s teeth to become wobbly and even fall out. 
Worryingly, the infection in their gums doesn’t just stay there. It can enter their bloodstream and infect other areas of their body, including the heart. This is why it’s crucial that a dog or cat with heart disease must have clean teeth.

What are the signs of dental disease in dogs and cats?

The signs of dental disease are similar in dogs and cats. They include:
  • Bad breath
  • Red, swollen, or bleeding gums
  • Visible calculus
  • Pain or difficulty chewing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Chewing on one side of the mouth
  • Excessive pawing at the mouth
  • Excessive drooling
  • Blood in their water bowl or on their toys
  • Loose or missing teeth
  • Swollen face from a tooth abscess 
  • Limited grooming

How does dental disease start and progress?

It all starts with plaque, which is a sticky film that forms on teeth. Plaque is made up of lots of bacteria sticking together. These bacteria naturally live in your pets’ mouths, but they can also come from their food.
If this plaque isn’t cleaned off of your pet’s teeth, it will mix with their saliva and harden into calculus (also called tartar). Unlike plaque, calculus cannot be removed by brushing and requires professional cleaning to get rid of it.
When plaque and calculus worsen, it starts to spread below the gum line. Initially, this causes irritation and inflammation in the gums known as gingivitis (mild dental disease).
Gingivitis is the first stage of dental disease, but it can be reversed with professional teeth cleaning and kept at bay with daily tooth brushing at home.
However, if gingivitis is left untreated, the infection will move deeper into the tissues around the tooth and progress into periodontal disease (advanced dental disease). At this stage, the infection damages the supporting tissues around the tooth which hold it in place. This leads to gum recession and tooth loss.
As the disease advances to periodontal disease, its effects become irreversible and the only treatment option left is to remove the affected teeth. This requires a general anaesthetic and costs £400-£800 on average.

The stages of dental disease

Stage 0
The pet has flat, pink gums with no gingivitis or gum disease. They may have some tartar forming.
Professional teeth cleaning carried out by a vet, combined with daily brushing at home.
Stage 1
There is tartar buildup on the pet’s teeth. The pet has developed gingivitis and their gums might be slightly red, swollen, or sore. There is no gum recession or bone loss yet. At this stage, the disease can still be reversed with treatment.
Professional teeth cleaning carried out by a vet, combined with daily brushing at home.
Stage 2
The pet will have tartar buildup, and their gums may be slightly red, swollen, and sore. This is the early stage of periodontal disease and some bone loss will occur (<25%).
Professional teeth cleaning carried out by a vet.
Stage 3
At this point, a pet has moderate periodontal disease. To the naked eye, stages 2 and 3 can look the same.
Otherwise, the gums might be redder and more swollen, may bleed easily, and may have receded. An X-ray will reveal that further bone loss has occurred (<50%).
Specialist treatment by a veterinarian specialised in dentistry, combined with daily brushing at home. Or, tooth extraction.
Stage 4
This is when a pet is suffering from severe periodontal disease and is at risk of losing multiple teeth due to bone loss (>50%). The infection in their gums can enter the bloodstream and spread to their internal organs.

How fast does dental disease progress?

Dental disease in pets can progress quickly. A study on Miniature Schnauzers found that 98% of dogs developed some stage of dental disease within 30 weeks of tooth brushing being stopped.
It doesn’t take weeks for problems to develop though. Plaque will form on your pet’s teeth within hours after eating, and it takes as little as 24 hours for plaque to harden into calculus (also known as tartar) if it isn’t brushed away. 
Calculus cannot be removed by brushing and requires professional cleaning at a veterinary practice to remove.

How can I stop my pet from getting dental disease?

Keeping your pet’s teeth clean is vital if you want to avoid the dangers of dental disease. There are several ways you can help to clean your pet's teeth at home.
Getting their pet’s teeth checked and professionally cleaned by a vet regularly will remove any plaque and calculus that has built up on their teeth. You can then clean your dog or cat’s teeth at home to maintain their healthy teeth and gums and prevent dental disease.
Brushing your pet’s teeth every day and having routine dental assessments at the vet are the single best ways to maintain a healthy mouth.
If brushing every day seems daunting, there are other methods to help look after your pet’s teeth, including dental chews, specially-formulated diets, water additives, and chew toys. Just check that whatever products you use are VOHC approved to make sure they are safe as possible for your pet.
To find out how to keep your pet’s teeth clean and healthy, you can read our quick guide. You can also find out more about the dental cover we offer.

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