Dental Exams: Is Your Pet Secretly Living in a World of Pain?

How do you feel about your dog’s teeth? Your cat’s teeth? When your veterinarian says, “Needs a dental,” what do you do? Here are some facts and myths.

Say, "Ahhhhh..." By: robertwitcher
Open up and say, “Ahhhhh…” By: robertwitcher

How do you feel about your dog’s teeth? Your cat’s teeth?

When your veterinarian says, “Needs a dental,” what do you do?

Run screaming out of the clinic so you don’t max out your credit card? Be thrilled your vet cares so much about teeth you get that warm and fuzzy feeling inside? Go home and brush your pet’s teeth three times a day hoping the need for a dental will go away? Think about flossing?


Nah, just go home and throw some tartar control biscuits at Stinkbreath and hope the smell gets better.

Veterinary dentistry has changed the face of your pet’s mouth in the past 10–15 years!

It’s time to talk teeth.

A dental? What’s that? Oh, you meant a COHAT? That’s correct. Your dog or cat is going in for a Comprehensive Oral Health Assessment and Treatment.

I learned this and much more in sunny Seattle a few weeks ago at a veterinary dental conference. Here are some highlights and common misconceptions:

Why Does My Pet Need a Dental?

OLD SCHOOL: Dogs and cats don’t need much dental care.
NEW SCHOOL: Pets need daily oral hygiene and regular dental checkups. They require preventive, proactive and, when necessary, involved dental care.

OLD: As long as he can eat, he’s fine.
NEW: Dental disease causes pain. Pets mask their oral pain very effectively. Our pets deserve to live with a pain-free mouth.


OLD: Get your pet’s teeth cleaned once or twice in a lifetime and fuggedaboutit.
NEW: Your pet should have multiple dental procedures throughout his or her life. Start a daily oral hygiene routine at a young age.

OLD: Hard food takes care of a pet’s teeth.
NEW: Hard food may be only a small part of keeping a pet’s mouth healthy. Some products on the market help control tartar but are only part of a complete routine.

OLD: Dentals are dangerous because of the anesthesia, particularly for old pets.
NEW: False. With proper pre-op bloodwork, a physical exam, fluid maintenance and proper anesthesia monitoring, there is almost no risk to a properly monitored dental.

OLD: The teeth will outlive the dog!
NEW: Our pets are living longer and longer, thanks to great advances in nutrition and veterinary care. Without proper dental care throughout life, their geriatric years will be jeopardized by a rotting mouth. And rotten mouths are PAINFUL.

Don’t Miss: Signs of Dental Disease in Dogs

Brushing Teeth — Really?

Really. At your pet’s next routine physical, ask your vet specifically about the dental care your pet needs right now.

It could be daily brushing, placing an effective product along the gumline, special food.

Try to be honest with yourself about your commitment to a daily routine.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will I set aside two to three minutes a day to brush or apply a product to my pet’s teeth?
  • Will my pet let me do this? Most pets will tolerate us doing some degree of dental care. Others will not. I don’t want anyone getting bitten or straining their relationship with their fur-buddy. For those pets who have dental-tude, otherwise known as, “You’re not coming near me with that stuff,” ask your vet for some training, alternatives and products that will help maintain dental health between cleanings. Try to make this a pleasant experience with treats and positive reinforcement.

Take-Home Message: The specialists have convinced me that you should not begin brushing or wiping the teeth with an oral gel if your pet already has gingivitis and tooth disease. Let your veterinarian perform the COHAT (a.k.a. dental) first. Begin home care about a week after the mouth is cleaned and pain free.

Trying to brush a dog's teeth
Some dogs resist toothbrushing. By: Dan Harrelson

Muttonchops Is Going in for a “Routine” Dental

There’s no such thing. Plain and simple.

In an exam, your vet can see obvious problem teeth, but who knows what lies beneath the surface? Dental radiographs and probing and measuring gingival pockets are easy and help vets decide what is not visible to the naked eye.

On the day of the dental procedure, be available. With phones, cell phones and texts, this is not the time not to flake out and be unreachable. Schedule this (and all surgeries, in my opinion), on days when you are not leaving on a plane or in your most important business meeting of the year.

Once your pet is under anesthesia and the mouth is fully evaluated, then and only then can your vet give you an honest idea of what work must be done.


Next, the elephant in the room is always…

How Much Will It Cost?

Unknown. We don’t know until we have some more information.

To be honest, if your vet is going to do a thorough job, the “unknowns” will not become “knowns” until Mr. Stinkbreath is anesthetized. You can certainly ask for an estimate, but your vet will not truly know the extent of the work needed until the anesthetized exam.

If the cost is impossible for you, dental work can always be done in stages. Be honest with your vet and your pocketbook.

Don’t Miss: 5 Expensive Veterinary Procedures That Can Be Avoided

“I’ve Heard This Can Be Done Without Anesthesia”

False. Untrue. No. Not. Naddah.

I don’t believe there is a veterinary dentist out there who would agree that a competent and thorough dental procedure can be done without anesthesia.

I can examine the teeth on most pets, and even chip off some tartar as a demonstration to the client, but there is often significant tartar and buildup underneath the gum line.

In order for us to take the necessary X-rays, and explore and clean the gingival pockets properly, your pet needs to be sleeping. To be fair to Mr. Stinkbreath, clean his teeth while he is in la-la land!

Our Pets’ Mouths Are Not the Same

Some animals are going to need much more dental care than others. Particularly in dogs, think about this when doing your breed research. First, a minute on kitties…

Mrs. Fishbreath

We know more and more about treating feline dental problems, but we still don’t know all the causes.

Some cats, with or without home care, have a fairly healthy mouth even as older felines. Others begin to have serious disease at a very young age. Purebred and female cats are over-represented in this category.

If your vet tells you your cat has gingivitis or tooth resorption, heed the warning and try to do the home care recommended. Set up a tooth fund (I’m serious!) for future dental bills.

Cat dental disease can be more of a challenge for veterinarians than dog mouths. Cats, more than dogs, may need total mouth extractions if they suffer from serious dental disease. This will actually give them a much better life if they suffer from a horrible mouth.

Yes, they eat fine without teeth. Removing some, many or all of these tiny or easily breakable teeth, and making sure you get all the diseased root, is very difficult. It requires dental radiology and special skill.

Mr. Foulmouth

Breed and genetics matter in dogs!

Brachycephalic dogs (pushed-in faces) start out in life deformed. So do microdogs. The recent rage of teeny-weeny designer dogs being bred is a disgrace.

I may be making a lot of enemies right now, but we have bred for the cuteness factor and size. What did we get in return? Craniofacial deformities!

Before you buy or adopt a malti-poo or pug, a shih tzu or a Yorkie, begin your Toothfairy fund now. You’re going to need it.

As you can see, I’ve run off at the mouth about dental procedures. If your vet has been after you about getting Stinky’s dental needs dealt with, make a New Year’s resolution, and get it done! Believe me, the smell is only the tip of the toothberg.

Then, curling up by the fire next to your dog on those long winter nights won’t be like sitting next to a dumpster. Much more important, it’s vital for Stinky’s health. After his COHAT, you might want to rename him Winky.


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