Paws for Thought

with Dr. Janice Mitchell

The tooth, the whole tooth, and nothing but the tooth

A riddle for you. “30 white horses on a red hill; first they champ, then they stamp, then they stand still:” If you are a “Hobbit” fan or are very clever, you would have guessed “teeth.”

February is considered dental health month in the veterinary world and will be the focus of this column (FYI, cats have 30 teeth, dogs 42, horses 40, and cows 32).

Eighty-five percent of pets have dental disease by three years of age. How does this happen? Well, let’s start at the beginning.

Dogs and cats develop their full set of adult teeth at approximately 6 months of age. At this stage, the teeth are clean and white with healthy, salmon pink gums attached smoothly to the tooth. The tooth is bathed in saliva, bacteria and food particles (aka plaque) but if brushed away, it will never mineralize into tartar. If we do not regularly disinfect our mouths and brush away plaque (ew…dreadful thought) it will mineralize into solid, gritty and ugly yellow/brown tartar. Tartar blocks oxygen from bathing the tooth, changes the nature of the oral bacteria, and causes inflammation of the gum. All this eventually leads to a breakdown of the tooth’s attachment. Serious side effects of dental disease include weakened jaw bones and bacterial seeding from the unhealthy gums into the kidney, heart or liver.

So how can we keep a “CREST” white smile in our pets and avoid knock out putrid breath? Home dental care is very important, and there are good, better, and best options.

The good option includes using oral gels or water additives. One product in particular, that has a veterinary seal of approval and is 100% free of artificial and synthetic ingredients, is “Healthy Mouth” (available online at or at veterinary clinics). Using ingredients like clove oil, papain from papayas, and chlorophyll, this product is added to your pet’s drinking water or massaged onto the gums in its gel form. The better option includes dental chews and/or dental food—preferably also with a veterinary seal of approval (known as the Veterinary Oral Health Council). Now, here is where we need to be careful. Daily dental chews can reduce plaque by 69 percent but can also be a hazard. Parental guidance always! If too small of a treat, dogs can choke or have an intestinal obstruction. If too hard, like deer antlers, dogs can fracture a tooth. If derived from animal body parts, like pigs’ ears, they can be a source of salmonella. Kongs, Dentabones, Greenies and veterinary rawhides are all excellent chew treats. Dental diets, such as Hill’s T/D, are also a wonderful tool, especially with cats.

These diets are different than your average crunchy food as their size is considerably larger and high in fibre so that they don’t shatter easily upon “first bite.” These products will help clean molars but aren’t effective on fangs and incisors. The best option is brushing their teeth! With a toothpaste formulated for pets; use a children’s toothbrush to brush daily. If teeth look very dirty and gums look painfully red, do not brush these as they will hurt. Your only option now is professional cleaning.

Professional cleaning performed at a veterinary clinic is similar to what a person receives at the dentist except that your pet is completely anesthetized. The gross tartar is removed above and below the gum line, the enamel is then polished, and the mouth is disinfected.

Finally, our equine friends also need dental care. Unlike human teeth, the horse’s permanent teeth will continue to grow throughout life–approximately three millimetres per year.

This is a very important factor in dental care, because that growth, if it is uneven or uncontrolled, can cause poor contact between upper and lower teeth. To restore the balance in the horse’s mouth, uneven or jagged molars are filed down in a process called “floating.” The horse is restrained, his mouth is held open and the veterinarian uses a power float to file down the teeth that are overgrown.

In conclusion, any healthy mouth is a happy mouth, and “when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you!”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Janice Mitchell is a veterinarian at both Scott Veterinary Services and Island Animal Hosptial.