For most creatures, the mouth is a primary
gateway to the outside world; the health of your pet’s oral cavity,
including its teeth, is vital for the maintenance of whole-body
health. A pet’s (particularly a dog’s) mouth is a primary site of
disease. Periodontitis (inflammation of the tissues surrounding a
tooth) and dental calculus (an accumulation of mineral salts on
teeth) are respectively the No. 1 and 2 problems seen in companion
animals older than 7.
It has been estimated that periodontal disease is present in 50
to 80 percent of all dogs, and the incidence may reach 95 percent
in dogs older than 2 to 3. And cats suffer similar tooth and mouth
problems. The teeth of other animals, including horses and rabbits,
continue to grow throughout the animal’s lifetime, and if they are
allowed to overgrow or to grow at an abnormal angle, they actually
can prevent the animal from chewing properly.
Furthermore, mouth disease can extend from the local area to
result in ailments that affect other organ systems, possibly
because buildup on the teeth and gums can house toxins that
facilitate other diseases (researchers have isolated endotoxins
from calculus residues on dogs’ teeth). There is evidence that
periodontitis also predisposes animals to a number of diseases,
such as heart disease, diabetes and respiratory disease. And there
is anecdotal evidence that dental disease also may be responsible
for other chronic diseases such as arthritis.
Unfortunately, when it comes to pointing the finger of blame for
much of our pets’ dental problems, in the words of that imminent
health professional, Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
We have created at least a two-fold problem. First of all,
commercial foods are typically soft and they don’t cleanse teeth
effectively. Secondly, we often breed our pets for appearance
rather than function, and the result may be mouths in which the
teeth can’t grow into the natural alignment that allows for a
Prevent a Common Pet Problem
Periodontal disease is the general term used to denote diseases
of the periodontium (tissues surrounding the teeth), and it
includes gingivitis, periodontitis and periodontal abscesses.
Periodontal disease is by far the most common oral disease found in
all species and is arguably the most common disease condition seen
in a small animal veterinary practice. The severity of periodontal
disease correlates with the quantity of plaque and calculus present
on the teeth, as well as with the age of the animal.
Plaque is a soft, colorless mass, found on tooth surfaces,
starting at the crown and extending deep down into the sulcus (the
groove or “trench” that surrounds a tooth). Plaque requires special
dyes to visualize, and it is not a food residue; rather, it is a
thin film of several bacterial species. A soft diet does, however,
induce more plaque formation and higher levels of gingivitis than
does a hard diet. Unless it is removed, plaque formation is
extensive after a day or two — further reason for daily brushings
and offering hard foods (or bones) on a frequent basis.
Surface irregularities on the teeth, the most common of which is
calculus (see below), increase plaque accumulation. Scratches on
the teeth also may gather plaque. Scratches can result from
brushing with a stiff-bristled toothbrush or when metal scrapers
are used to remove calculus — thus the importance of dental
polishing after every dental cleaning procedure.
Calculus is a mass of calcium salts precipitated from saliva.
Calculus is seen easily and appears as varying amounts of an
off-white, yellow or brown crusty material on the teeth — often
concentrated at the tooth-gingival interface. Calculus acts as a
focal point that attracts and retains plaque, a characteristic that
is even more important in the creation of disease than is its
function as a mechanical irritant.
A soft diet correlates positively with periodontal disease —
animals on hard diets tend to have fewer problems with periodontal
disease. However, not all pets on soft diets have excessive
problems with periodontal disease, and some critters on hard (dry
food) diets still develop severe periodontal problems — perhaps
related to genetic predispositions. In addition, an animal on a
calcium-deficient diet can develop severe periodontitis at an early
In gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), there is a noticeably
darker red color where the tooth meets the gum line. This early
inflammation may lead to excessive growth of the gums, and as the
gums grow, they tend to move away from their once-firm contact with
the tooth. To diagnose gingivitis, a blunt-tipped probe is used,
pushing it around the edges of the teeth to determine the depth of
The treatment for gingivitis is the removal of bacterial plaque
from the surfaces of the teeth (tooth brushing) on a consistent
Symptoms to Watch For
Several symptoms can indicate a problem of the oral cavity,
including a change in eating habits; pawing at the mouth; abnormal
salivation; oral hypersensitivity; facial swelling; draining
tracts; obvious blood or bloody (or brown-colored) saliva; sneezing
and nasal discharge; abnormal behavior (some critters, especially
old and cranky ones, can become even crankier when their teeth
hurt); and eye changes (infections around the upper teeth or upper
jaw area often cause swellings around the eyes).
While all the above symptoms can be significant, the first and
most important tip-off to dental or other problems of the oral
cavity is halitosis, or bad breath. While most of the disease
conditions of the oral cavity may be out of sight, they are almost
never “out of smell.” A healthy pet’s breath does not smell bad
(perhaps not as sweet as my wife’s breath, but not bad
nevertheless). Any time your pet’s breath has an off odor, be
suspicious of dental or oral problems.
While plaque is difficult to see without staining aids, calculus
is easy to spot: it is a chalky or crusty-looking, off-white to
brown accumulation on the surface of the teeth, and often it is
associated with a reddened gum line.
One of the problems with diagnosing tooth conditions is that,
oftentimes after an initial painful period, the pain and any other
associated symptoms go away … but the condition remains — further
reason for a complete inspection of all the far reaches of the oral
and oropharyngeal cavities.
Professional Dental Cleaning
Almost every veterinary clinic in the country has an ultrasonic
dental machine that is an efficient tool for cleaning the teeth.
However, equally important for professional cleaning is a quality
tooth polisher, and not all practices are up to date with the newer
models. In addition, not all clinics use trained technicians to do
the cleaning, and proper training can be an important component for
ensuring quality professional tooth maintenance. To be sure you are
getting the best in service, it never hurts to ask about your
Note that animals need to be anesthetized to do a thorough job
of examining the teeth and gums and to really get the teeth clean
down deep into the sulcus.
I recommend that any sick or older animal (beyond about 7 years
of age for dogs and cats) have a screening blood test (CBC and
blood chemistry) to be sure that there is nothing physically wrong
that could increase the risks from anesthesia.
Depending on the individual animal and on how well you and your
pet are able to keep her teeth clean, the time between professional
dental cleanings will vary from about once every four months to
every four years or so, throughout your pet’s lifetime.
For all dental procedures, whether simple cleaning or more
complex procedures, I recommend a pre- and post-procedural
therapeutic dose of antioxidants (vitamins A, C and E along with
herbal antioxidants) and immune enhancers, such as echinacea
(Echinacea spp.). As always, I try to avoid any unnecessary
Holistic Dental Care
For humans, ideal dental care consists of twice-daily tooth
brushing; rinsing with a mouthwash; flossing; tongue cleaning;
irrigation; professional cleanings; and supplements that support
oral health. For our pets, however, most of these are nearly
impossible — how do you teach an animal to spit out the mouthwash,
or lie still for flossing or tongue cleaning? So, we compromise and
rely on daily brushings, oral-health food supplements, chewing on
hard food (foods designed to act as a dentifrice and/or bones) and
periodic professional cleanings.
Almost any herb or herbal combination that has antibiotic,
vulnerary (wound-healing) or astringent activity will be useful in
helping to fend off oral disease — the key is to find herbs that
your pet doesn’t hate the taste of. I look at herbal teas as a
mouthwash substitute. It’s true you can’t get an animal to swoosh
the fluid around in the mouth and then spit it out. But if we use
teas that can be swallowed, just the contact of the tea with the
oral cavity and teeth can be beneficial.
Green tea (Camellia sinensis) is known to be especially
beneficial for preventing oral and dental problems. (In humans,
green tea has been shown to help prevent cavities, and there is
some evidence that it may reverse the progress of oral cancers.)
First, try the brewed green tea, straight, in your pet’s water
dish. If he rejects that, try adding a little meat broth as
flavoring. For drinking teas, also consider calendula (Calendula
officinalis), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), thyme (Thymus
vulgaris) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Any of these will help
prevent oral disease, and chances are good that your pets
eventually will begin to like their taste.
For treatment of oral lesions, a strong herbal tea or tincture
can be squirted into the mouth. Or, you can make a slurry (use a
teaspoonful or so of the herb, boiled with a small amount of water
— just enough to make a thin paste) and apply it directly to the
lesions. Herbs to consider for treatment include barberry (Ber-
beris vulgaris), red root (Ceanothus americanus), agrimony
(Agrimonia eupatoria) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis).
Unfortunately, many of these herbs are not especially tasty; you
may need to experiment to find the least distasteful.
There are at least two aspects of an animal’s diet that are
important for maintaining dental and oral health: first, the
dentifrice (cleaning) activity of the diet, and second, supplements
that can help maintain healthy teeth and gums. Remember that the
cleansing activity of foods and bones is important. Check out the
Veterinary Oral Health Council’s accepted products, found at www.
avdc.org. Nutritional supplements for oral health include:
• Vitamins A, C and E, for their antioxidant activity. Vitamin C
also helps the healing process.
• Coenzyme Q10 is a potent antioxidant that reduces damage to
cells, and has been shown to be especially beneficial for reducing
gingival inflammation and periodontal pocket depth in humans.
• Bioflavonoids, such as rutin and hesperidin, are required for
the formation of collagen, the protein building block for gum
tissue, cartilage and bone. They also play an important role in
maintaining a competent immune system. These are available in some
toothpastes, or they may be added to your pet’s diet as a
supplement. Check with your veterinarian for appropriate dosages of
these supplements for your pet.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary med- icine and
veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional
veterinary medicine for 10 years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a
holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri. Visit our website,
www.HerbsForHealth.com, to order Dr. Kidd’s pet-care books.
Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace
the advice of a qualified veterinarian.
How to Interpret Pet Food Labels
Stumped by the confusing keywords that litter the ingredient lists of your companion’s kibble? Learn common pet food terms and which ingredients to avoid to keep your furry friend healthy and happy.
Bone Up on Holistic Pet Care
From fleas to food choices, explore effective and safe alternatives for your furry friend’s emotional and physical well-being.
Help Your Dog Stay Fit and Trim
Consider your doggo’s nutrition like that of yours when it comes to unhealthy eating and health complications.