What kinds of dental problems do pets have?
Dental disease is as common in dogs and cats as it is in humans. Cavities make up the majority of dental problems in humans, but pets most commonly suffer from periodontal disease, which is inflammation of the surrounding support of the tooth. This starts with the buildup of plaque which often causes inflammation of the gums around the base of the teeth (gingivitis), which is a continuous source of discomfort and pain. If untreated, this will ultimately lead to periodontal disease with infection, bone loss and tooth loss. There are many factors which contribute to the formation of dental disease including breed predisposition and genetics, malocclusions, chewing habits, and systemic health.
What is plaque?
Plaque is bacteria in the mouth that are deposited on the teeth within a few hours after being cleaned. When plaque is not removed, mineral salts in the saliva cause hard tartar, or calculus, to form within 24-48 hours. The bacteria eventually erode the tooth’s support structures, eventually causing pain and disease.
What does plaque do to the teeth?
If plaque is allowed to remain on the teeth, several things may happen:
  • The plaque will mechanically push the gums away from the roots of the teeth and cause degeneration of the bone around the teeth. This is a painful process that allows the teeth to loosen in their sockets and infection to enter the root.
  • Chronic inflammation in the mouth can lead to the spread of inflammatory signals to the rest of the body and affect other organs.
How can I prevent tartar formation on my pet's teeth?
After your pet's teeth have been cleaned, you may take a few steps to help to reduce the process of plaque and tartar buildup.
  • Feed Hill's Prescription Diet t/d. This diet has been shown to greatly reduce tartar buildup. It is a dry food composed of pieces too large to be swallowed whole. While chewing the kibble, special fibers literally scrape the plaque off of the teeth without damaging the enamel. By removing plaque as it forms, tartar formation is greatly diminished.
  • Tooth brushing is the most effective means of removing plaque before it turns into tartar. We recommend the use of toothpaste and brushes made especially for pets. This needs to be done at least three times weekly (preferably daily), though not all pets may tolerate it. It can take time to train them to be used to it.
  • Use a "mouthwash" that is added to your pet's drinking water. This type of product reduces the bacterial count in the mouth, resulting in improved breath.
  • Clean the teeth at the first sign of tartar buildup. This will prevent damage to the gums and roots.
  • Avoid broken teeth, which cause more tartar accumulation and gingivitis, as well as potential tooth root infections. Chewing on animal bones or hard plastic “nylabones” is the most common reason why dogs fracture their large premolars/molars. A good rule-of-thumb is “if it’s as hard as a tooth, it can fracture a tooth.” Ideally what you offer for a chew toy should be able to be indented by your fingernail. 
What are the signs?
Halitosis, or bad breath, is the primary sign of periodontal disease. Dogs’ and cats' breath should not have a disagreeable odor. When periodontal disease advances, inability to chew hard food as well as excessive drooling with or without blood may occur.
How is periodontal disease diagnosed?
Bone loss from periodontal disease occurs below the gumline. In order to evaluate the stage and severity of the disease, as well as the best treatment, your pet must be examined under general anesthesia. In addition to a visual examination, X-rays and instruments to measure bone loss are used.
How is dental disease treated?
Treatment depends on the severity of the disease. Grade one (out of four) dental disease is usually associated with plaque and mild calculus or gingivitis. It can usually be treated with consistent daily tooth brushing and oral care at home. Grades two through four will require cleaning below the gumline under anesthesia. With grades three and four, oral surgery is often necessary to scale deep below the gumline or to remove diseased teeth.
What is involved in cleaning my pets’ teeth under anesthesia?
Proper cleaning of the teeth requires complete cooperation of the patient so plaque and calculus can be removed properly. Therefore, anesthesia is required to thoroughly clean the teeth. Although anesthesia always carries a degree of risk, modern anesthetics and advanced monitoring equipment greatly minimize this risk, even for older animals. Usually, the risks associated with the dental disease far outweigh any risk from anesthesia. In addition, medications may be dispensed for use after the cleaning to treat and help prevent dental disease progression. Once they are under anesthesia, the teeth are examined and any signs of disease are noted, full mouth x-rays are taken, then the teeth are scaled and polished. 
What is the prognosis for periodontal disease?
Early dental disease and mild gingivitis are treatable and curable with daily tooth brushing. Periodontal disease is not curable, but can be controlled once treated and followed up with strict home care.