Kiss Pet-Breath Goodbye

By Kate Knutson, DVM, Star Tribune Sales and Marketing

June 12, 2008

In preparation for this article, I didn't brush or floss my teeth for five days. The initial plan was a week, but my dog quit sleeping with me on the fourth night. The cats, being more discerning, abandoned me on the second night. On the fifth morning, the dog woke me up with a toothbrush in her mouth, which I took as a not-so-subtle sign to end my venture ahead of schedule.

What is passed off as normal doggy and kitty breath in the four-legged world is described as halitosis, gingivitis, periodontitis, pus and abscesses in the two-legged sphere. These are all signs of disease in the mouth no matter how many legs you have. Quite simply, just like humans, cats and dogs do not have continually stinky breath if their mouths are healthy.

Can you imagine never brushing your teeth or having them professionally cleaned? How about being unable to make a dental appointment for an infected and painful tooth? This is the situation that many of our pets find themselves in every day.

Signs of disease start early

A University of Minnesota study shows that the vast majority of dogs have signs of periodontal disease by the time they reach two years of age. We've known for quite some time the serious impact that poor oral health has on humans. It is only recently that we have begun to appreciate this same impact in other animals.

When oral disease is present, inflammation occurs causing tissue cells to swell and slightly separate. This provides the perfect opportunity for the bacteria in the mouth to squeeze between the gaps and move into the bloodstream. The bloodstream is a highway that reaches every cell of the body. Once bacteria have gained access, they travel and inhabit any organ of the body - requiring the immune system to fight off the invaders before the bacteria have time to set up housekeeping. In overwhelming or continual infections, this can be daunting and cause severe and irreversible damage.

Just like their humans, pets are living longer. A longer life span means there is an increased risk of encountering more diseases, making preventative medicine such as dentistry critical to a healthy life. To prevent dental disease, one must practice an oral health care plan. It is important to brush your dog's and cat's teeth on a daily-to-twice-daily basis. Just like teaching a toddler about toothbrushing, this will not happen overnight. It takes practice and patience.

Can't brush?

Unfortunately, some pets will just not accept having their teeth brushed. In that case, there are other teeth cleaning alternatives. One is to use chlorhexidine solution or zinc ascorbate. Rawhide chews containing chlorhexidine are also available. In addition, some foods are specially formulated with special cleansing agents.

Before implementing oral healthcare for your four-legged companion, make certain that you are using products approved by a veterinarian. Human toothpaste can be toxic to dogs and cats.

Give your four-legged companion the kiss test. If you smell the signs of doggy or kitty breath, then it's time to schedule a dental appointment.


Dr. Kate Knutson is a veterinarian and co-owner of Pet Crossing Animal Hospital and Alta Vet.

Pet Dental Care Facts & Tips

• Doggy or kitty breath is a sign of disease just as it is in humans.

• Schedule your pet's oral health care checkup yearly and more frequently if advised by a veterinarian. This includes having the teeth charted, cleaned and x-rayed along with an examination for signs of oral cancer.

• Oral cancer is the third most common cancer in cats and the fourth in dogs. In humans, it's the sixth.

• For their own safely, pets must go under general anesthesia when having their teeth cleaned. The risk in not using general anesthesia is aspiration, pneumonia and death

• Choose a vet clinic that follows the AAHA dental care guidelines, available at

• Do not start toothbrushing when signs of disease are present. It is too painful for pets, and we humans often misunderstand their attempts to tell us so.

• If you have been routinely brushing your pet's teeth and they start bleeding, brush less vigorously for two days. If the bleeding continues call for a checkup.

• If your pets' teeth look clean but they still have bad breath, make an appointment for full-mouth x-rays. They may have early signs of a tooth root abscess or other serious disease.

Important dental care facts and tips at: /petcentral.