Preventing and Treating Gum Disease in Pets

by Melissa Chichester

Have you ever confessed to the dentist that you haven’t been as diligent with your daily flossing as you vowed to be in your last checkup?

Unfortunately, our pets don’t have the same ability to care for their teeth as much as is necessary, nor can they vocalize any dental problems that arise. It’s up to us as pet parents to take a proactive approach to our pet’s dental care, to recognize the signs of potential problems and to take action when needed.

Bacteria is the cause of periodontal disease in people and pets, and according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, a whopping 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have some form of periodontal disease after they reach 2 years of age.

Because the early warning signs and symptoms are easy for pet owners to miss, adult cats and dogs can be susceptible to the unnecessary pain and discomfort that gum disease entails.

Here are 5 symptoms that may indicate the presence of or potential for developing gum disease.


The appearance of plaque on the teeth and red, swollen gums are indications that gingivitis may be present. Gingivitis is the earliest stage of periodontal disease caused by bacteria infecting the gums.

Reluctance to eat hard foods or play with toys

If your pet loses interest in hard kibble or their favorite toys, he might be experiencing pain in his mouth. This discomfort may be accompanied by a sudden change in mood or behavior as well.

Bleeding gums

If your pet’s gums bleed while eating or playing with toys, this could be a sign of accelerating gum disease. Bleeding gums may also be caused by trauma, such as overly aggressive play, so a prompt veterinary exam is extremely important.

Receding gums

In the most advanced cases of gum disease, gum tissue recedes away from the teeth toward the roots. This may also lead to loose or even lost teeth.


The good news is that when discovered early enough, it is possible to reverse the effects of periodontal disease with treatment and prevent recurrence in the future.

Dental work for dogs and cats is very similar. A veterinarian can do yearly dental cleanings that include X-rays to examine the roots below the gum line, and evaluate jaw health.

Pets are sedated with a mild anesthesia for the cleaning; however, this will require a full pre-exam that includes bloodwork beforehand to ensure your pet is healthy enough to receive anesthesia.

The anesthesia makes it less stressful and painful for your pet, and allows for a better cleaning. It also prevents injuries to the pet and veterinarian that may occur if the pet is awake.

During the cleaning, your veterinarian will assess the amount of plaque and bacteria present on the teeth, and may even have to extract teeth if their condition is too poor to save. The teeth will also be polished during this procedure, similar to what we experience during a trip to the dentist. This procedure can be done as a preventative measure, and it can be performed to treat gum disease in early or advanced stages.


At home, the best way to practice prevention is by regularly brushing your pet’s teeth.

“Daily brushing is recommended, but even a few times per week makes a difference in overall oral health,” says veterinary technician and Healthy Perspectives contributor Molly Bonacci.

Usually, this is done with a special toothbrush that you can put over your finger, and a toothpaste formulated especially for pets (don’t use yours!). This process is normally easier with dogs as compared to cats; however, if daily brushing isn’t possible, even just a couple times per week is helpful. Patience and training are definitely necessary, especially in the beginning, so don’t give up!

If your pet just can’t stand getting his teeth brushed, don’t worry! There are many pet care products to help cut down on plaque and tarter for both dogs and cats. Chew toys (my dog, Quincy, is a big fan of the Hartz Chew ‘n Clean Bone) and dental treats are available for both dogs and cats. If your cat will not tolerate brushing, give them a dental treat once daily, like this one. There are even gels that can be applied to the teeth and gums with no brushing required.