Dental Tarter in Pets

I hope you will bear with me while I step up on my soapbox for just a bit concerning a veterinary topic that is important to me– Dental tarter and teeth cleanings in pets.

I know you’ve probably at one time or another seen animals with yellowish-brown or brownish colored teeth.  What you’re usually seeing is a buildup of dental tartar.

Dental plaque is a sticky colorless film that continuously forms on the teeth and forms within hours of eating.  If left untreated, plaque will eventually harden into tartar.  Dental tartar (also called dental calculus) is a combination of various mineral salts from saliva, bacteria and organic debris from food particles.  It’s bad news because it causes tooth decay, gum inflammation (gingivitis), periodontal disease, tooth loss, and dental infections.  It can also cause some serious bad breath or halitosis. It forms heaviest on the canine teeth, the premolars and molars.

Tarter is never normal.  Know that when you see it, there is a problem. 


photo credit:  This dog has severe periodontal disease.  Notice the exposed tooth roots, the pus around the gum line and tooth roots, the gingivitis and the heavy buildup of dental tartar.

Dental tartar is nothing to be taken lightly as it’s full of bacteria and an animal with a build up of tarter is continuously swallowing that bacteria.  The bacteria can eventually seed in the blood stream, where it can then travel to vital organs like the heart and kidneys.  And that’s never good.  The tarter also pushes up on the gum line, leaving a space between the gum and the tooth where food and bacteria get trapped. This can lead to a tooth root abscess.  

Pet owners often ask how often they need to have a professional dental cleaning done on their pet.  That depends.  Some animals form tartar faster than others.  Brachycephalic breeds (dogs with short noses and flat faces like pugs and bull dogs) and toy breeds seem to form tartar faster.  Older animals with systemic illnesses can form tartar faster.  It can also depend on the animal’s diet.  Animals fed a soft diet or a diet primarily of canned food, will generally develop tartar faster than those on dry food.

There are certain dental diets and dental treats to feed your pet that will slow down the development of dental tartar.   Brushing the pet’s teeth will also help prevent tartar.  Some pets tolerate brushing fairly well, while others won’t stand for it.  It helps to start brushing the pet’s teeth at a very young age to get them accustomed to the brushing.  And then there’s the question of how often one should brush their pet’s teeth?  To be really effective, it would be best to brush twice daily, just like what is recommended in people.  But let’s be realistic.  There aren’t many people who are willing to do that.  Surveys have shown that only about 1% of dog owners and less than 1% of cat owners regularly brush their pet’s teeth.  I used to recommend two to three times a week which is slightly more feasible for most people and still effective.  If you do brush your pet’s teeth, make sure you use a soft bristled brush and an enzyme based pet toothpaste, NOT human toothpaste, which is not designed to be swallowed and will upset digestive tracts if ingested.  Also the minty flavor and the foaming action of human toothpaste is disagreeable to most pets.

Sometimes pets require professional dental cleaning.  It does involve general anesthesia and endotracheal intubation  because most veterinarians use an ultrasonic dental scaler that shoots out a stream of water and uses an ultrasonic vibration to break off the tarter (and believe me, that dental tarter is some seriously hard stuff-–it’s like chipping off concrete).  You don’t want that water to go down the trachea.  Also, most dogs are NOT going to sit still for a cleaning.  Most vets also use a machine to polish the teeth too, like the dentist uses on you.  We can’t explain to our pets that what we are doing to them is for their own good.  They don’t see the benefit of it like we do.  They aren’t going to understand and it’s not as if we can tell them to sit still for 30-45 minutes with their mouth wide open so we can clean their teeth.  Forcing them to undergo this procedure while awake is scary for them and stressful, not to mention hard on the person trying to clean their teeth.  Animals with severe periodontal disease can be painful and can react to that pain by biting.  And, it’s dangerous having them jerk around with metal instruments in their mouth.  In order to do a thorough cleaning up under the gum line of all the teeth, which can be a tad bit uncomfortable, they need to be anesthetized.  A thorough dental exam will be performed during the cleaning as well as an examination of the entire mouth.  I’ve seen cases of oral cancers which were discovered on routine dental cleanings that the owner wasn’t even unaware of. Catching an oral cancer early before symptoms even appear can save lives!


The teeth on this canine appear healthy and white with no visible tarter

I know people don’t like their animals to have to undergo anesthesia.  It’s probably the number one reason people don’t have their pet’s teeth cleaned.   I’m the same way and so I understand that COMPLETELY.  But I’m a BIG believer in dental cleanings.  My last cat lived to the ripe old age of 19 1/2.  From about the age of eight, I had to have his teeth cleaned a minimum of every two years.  He would not tolerate me brushing his teeth.  At.  All.  I even tried the dental wipe pads on him.  He hated that too.  It was a battle to use them.  It ended up being more stressful on him and what I certainly didn’t want to do in his old age, is stress him unnecessarily.  So yes, I anesthetized him when necessary and I cleaned his teeth.  He was more of an anesthetic risk in his old age but it was riskier NOT to clean his teeth than it was to clean them.  In other words, the benefits far outweighed the risks, in my opinion.  I want to believe that keeping his mouth and teeth in good shape prolonged his life.  I have two cats now who just turned four years old.  I examine their teeth and mouth periodically and their teeth are healthy with no tarter formation yet.  I feed them dry food daily and they also get special treats for dental tarter.  Whether this helps, I really can’t say.  But I can say that when they require it (and I’m guessing it will be in the next two years), they WILL have dental cleanings WHILE UNDER ANESTHESIA.

If an animal has a particularly bad case of dental tarter, most vets will recommend a few days of antibiotics prior to the cleaning and for several days after.   Why?  Because remember, that tarter is loaded with bacteria.  The gums are usually inflamed too and bacteria and inflamed gums don’t go together.  Bacteria released into the bloodstream can head right for the valve leaflets in the heart causing a bacterial endocarditis and this can be deadly.  I do not believe in putting all animals undergoing dental prophylaxis on antibiotics, but if I see an animal with advanced tarter buildup or periodontal disease, then yes, I reach for the antibiotics.  And if I cleaned an animal’s teeth which had a lot of dental tarter, you can bet I wore gloves and a mask with an eye shield.  Because I didn’t want to be inhaling the bacteria I was releasing (or touching it) as I scaled the chunks of tarter off.  And I certainly didn’t want said bacteria to splash up into my eye.  In the clinic I worked at, the owner was very strict on mandatory gloves, masks, and eye shields for the dental cleaner, whether it was a technician or a veterinarian doing the cleaning.  And for good reason.  While practicing vet med, I saw some mouths that were so full of infection and oozing pus and literally smelled so bad, that they made me gag.  I felt so bad for those animals.  How horrible to have an aching tooth and painful gums and not be able to tell anyone you’re in pain.  How horrible to be swallowing that nastiness every waking minute.  Cleaning nasty teeth was always rewarding to me.


Most veterinarians will examine your pet’s mouth yearly when it’s time for their routine vaccinations/physicals.  They’re checking the gums, the teeth, and the throat for any abnormalities and determining if a teeth cleaning is needed.  If they don’t examine your pet’s mouth at least once a year, then request it!  Never be afraid to ask your veterinarian questions.  That’s what they’re there for.

Gail ♥ 

About Gail

I am a wife, mother, sister, aunt, friend, veterinarian, and wanna be writer. I love nature and animals of all kinds, music, cooking, and spending time with my family.
This entry was posted in Animals, Veterinary Medicine and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Dental Tarter in Pets

  1. Ugh. Teeth cleaning. I’ve tried doing it myself. It didn’t turn out well. I’ve had the vet do it almost annually. Getting scary now that the dogs are past 10. I had a young dog who didn’t shed his baby teeth and had a double row. Yay.

    • Gail says:

      Retaining baby teeth is common in toy breeds and often have to be pulled. I applaud you for taking care of your dog’s teeth. I hear you on being scared of anesthesia. That’s understandable. Anesthetics have come a long way in the past few decades. What is being used in vet med now is SO much safer than what was being used when I graduated back in 1985.

  2. Mary Mangee says:

    Great information Gail. Thanks for passing it along.

  3. crass lane says:

    Great detailed information!

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