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Ignoring Your Pet's Teeth? 4 Ways You May Be Causing Harm

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

  • March 14, 2020
  • Overlooking the need to take care of your pet’s teeth can cause or contribute to other much more serious diseases
  • Endocarditis (a form of heart disease), and diabetes complications can result from poor oral health in dogs and cats
  • Oral disease can also trigger an immune system inflammatory response
  • Poor dental health, especially in small breed dogs, occasionally results in jaw fractures that can be very challenging to heal
  • Steps you can take at home to help keep your dog’s or cat’s mouth healthy include daily tooth brushing, feeding the right diet, and offering recreational bones or high-quality dental chews



Many people don’t realize that neglecting their pet’s teeth can have wide ranging health consequences that go far beyond stinky breath and gum disease.

Studies have linked periodontal disease in both humans and pets to systemic diseases of the kidneys and liver, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes complications, problems during pregnancy, and even cancer. These serious health concerns develop or are made worse by the constant presence of oral bacteria flushing into the bloodstream through inflamed or bleeding gum tissue.

The good news is that many of these conditions improve once the dental disease is resolved and good oral hygiene is maintained. Following are four health problems that can be created or complicated by poor oral hygiene in furry family members.

#1 — Heart Disease

When plaque isn’t removed from your pet’s teeth, it collects there and around the gum line and within a few days hardens into tartar. Tartar sticks to the teeth and ultimately irritates the gums. Irritated gums become inflamed — a condition known as gingivitis. If your dog or cat has gingivitis, the gums will be red rather than pink and his breath may be noticeably stinky.

If the tartar isn’t removed, it will build up under the gums, eventually causing them to pull away from the teeth. This creates small pockets in the gum tissue that become repositories for additional bacteria. At this stage, your pet has developed an irreversible condition, periodontal disease, which causes considerable pain and can result in abscesses, infections, loose teeth and bone loss.

When periodontal disease is present, the surface of the gums is weakened. The breakdown of gum tissue allows mouth bacteria to invade your pet’s bloodstream and travel throughout his body. If his immune system doesn’t kill off the bacteria, it can reach the heart and infect it.

Studies have shown that oral bacteria, once in the bloodstream, seem able to fight off attacks by the immune system. What many pet parents don’t realize is there’s an established link between gum disease and endocarditis, which is an inflammatory condition of the valves or inner lining of the heart.

Researchers also suspect certain strains of oral bacteria may lead to heart problems. Some types of bacteria found in the mouths of dogs produce sticky proteins that can adhere to artery walls, causing them to thicken. Mouth bacteria are also known to promote the formation of blood clots that can damage the heart.

How quickly these events take place depends on a number of factors, including your pet’s age, breed, genetics, diet, overall health, and the frequency and quality of dental care he receives. It’s also important to realize that some pets will require regular professional cleanings even when their owners are doing everything right in terms of home care.

#2 — Diabetes Complications

Diabetes and gum disease often go hand-in-hand in pets, with the two conditions feeding off each other. The more advanced the periodontal disease, the more serious the diabetes becomes, which in turns exacerbates the periodontal disease. Inflammation and infection — hallmarks of gum disease — can affect blood sugar metabolism.

Gum disease can also influence the control and regulation of diabetes in pets, because inflammation and infection decrease the body’s sensitivity to insulin. Often, existing periodontal disease must be treated in order to bring a pet’s diabetes under control.

#3 — Immune System Inflammatory Response

Plaque contains bacteria, and when it isn’t removed from your pet’s teeth, it builds up under the gumline, which triggers the immune system to mount an inflammatory response. The inflammation begins as gingivitis and left untreated, progresses to gum disease. The inflammation kills bacteria, but unfortunately, it destroys tissue in the process. According to veterinary dentist Dr. Chad Lothamer in an interview with PetMD:

“In fact, the majority of tissue destruction associated with dental infections is caused by products of the immune system and not by degradation products from the bacteria themselves. This can lead to local tissue loss, pain and infection of the surrounding tissues.”1

The more severe a pet’s oral disease and tissue inflammation, the higher the risk that bacteria will enter the bloodstream (a condition known as bacteremia) and migrate to other parts of the body, causing damage and/or infections at those locations.

Treating your pet’s periodontal disease (or better still, preventing it in the first place) can have a profound impact on her health because her body doesn’t have to expend precious energy fighting the infection. In addition, she’s no longer dealing with the pain of dental disease.

#4 — Fractured Jaw

Believe it or not, oral disease can lead to a broken jaw in dogs, especially the little guys with small mouths and the same number of teeth as their much larger counterparts. According to veterinary dentist Dr. Donnell Hansen, “Infection to these dogs’ mouths can weaken their relatively small jaws, and something as simple as jumping off the couch can lead to jaw fracture.”2

Thankfully, it doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s very painful for the dog, and the fracture often doesn’t heal properly because the bone isn’t healthy. Fractures can also occur in the lower jaw after tooth extractions, because missing teeth weaken the jaw.

5 Steps to Help Keep Your Pet’s Mouth Healthy

1.Feed a nutritionally optimal, species-specific, fresh food diet, and feed it raw if possible. When your dog or cat gnaws on raw meat, it acts as a kind of natural toothbrush and dental floss.

2.If you have a dog, offer recreational bones and/or a fully digestible, high quality dental dog chew to help control plaque and tartar. The effect of dental chews is similar to raw bones, but safer for power chewers or dogs who have restorative dental work and can’t chew raw bones.

3.Brush your pet’s teeth, preferably every day. A little time spent each day brushing your dog’s or kitty’s teeth can be tremendously beneficial in maintaining her oral health and overall well-being.

4.Perform routine mouth inspections. Your pet should allow you to open his mouth, look inside, and feel around for loose teeth or unusual lumps or bumps on the tongue, under the tongue, along the gum line and on the roof of the mouth. After you do this a few times, you’ll become aware of any changes that occur from one inspection to the next. You should also make note of any differences in the smell of your pet’s breath that aren’t diet-related.

5.Arrange for regular oral exams performed by your veterinarian. He or she will alert you to any existing or potential problems in your pet’s mouth, and recommend professional teeth cleaning under anesthesia, if necessary.

Daily homecare and as-needed professional attention by your veterinarian are the best way to keep your pet’s mouth healthy and disease-free. They are also important for pets with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure.