“You cannot start worrying about your pet’s dental health too soon,” says William Rosenblad, DVM, a member of our editorial advisory board as well as the head of the Dentistry Department at the Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. “By the time you or your veterinarian see calculus/tartar buildup, there may already be serious periodontal disease occurring. I have seen calculus start to build up in dogs as young as six months, gum recession by eight months, and even a jaw fracture due to bone damage caused by periodontal disease in a 14-month-old dog.”
Plaque builds up at and below the gum line. If it is not removed, it combines with minerals in the saliva to form calculus, or tartar, a hardened substance that is irritating to the gums. Left unattended for too long, it can end up separating the gums from the teeth. Loose teeth, bone loss, abscesses, and infection can result.
Even with a good daily oral hygiene regimen, which entails once-a-day brushing that removes the layer of sticky plaque that forms at the tooth/gum juncture, some breeds are predisposed to dental disease. Small dogs, due to crowding of their teeth, are particularly prone. With brachycephalic dogs and their shortened jaws — pugs, Boston terriers, shi tzus, and the like — the crowding is ratcheted up even more, Dr. Rosenblad says. Dogs with whiskers that curl into their mouths, like Schnauzers, Yorkshire terriers, and Maltese terriers, are also at increased risk for periodontal disease, as are mouth breathers such as greyhounds, whippets, Italian greyhounds, and other sight hounds. The mouth breathing causes drying of the oral cavity, which promotes the problem.
For dogs predisposed to gum disease (cavities are not an issue for dogs, generally speaking), it is particularly important that they start having oral hygiene exams during their wellness visits even when they are still quite young. But any dog should have an exam of the oral cavity during her regular checkup — and receive a cleaning (under anesthesia) and any other dental procedure recommended by your veterinarian. These measures will keep her teeth in good shape, in addition to keeping her out of pain and able to eat comfortably.
“It is almost never wrong to have a proper dental procedure (general anesthesia, dental radiographs, etc.) performed,” says Dr. Rosenblad. “Properly performed and prepared-for anesthesia is very safe; the pets will never be younger than right now; and the dental disease will never be less than right now.”