The Kiss of Death


If your pet’s breath is enough to knock you over, she probably has dental disease. Dental health is very important for our pets. They say we can add years to our lives by flossing and I believe that keeping our animals’ teeth clean can improve their health and longevity as well.

Many pets have dental problems that their owners are not aware of. In fact, 70% – 80% of adult animals suffer from gum disease. Every pet owner should occasionally lift their animal’s lip and look way in the back. Any yellow or brown material stuck to the teeth is tartar that does not belong there. Furthermore, if the gums are red, it means there is gum disease and bacteria from the tartar are invading the gums and getting into the blood stream. This can lead to systemic problems such as infections in the heart or kidneys.

I would like to dispel the myth that dry food helps keep a pet’s teeth clean. Even if we chew on pretzels all day we will need to brush our teeth. Just like pretzels, dry pet food breaks apart as soon as the tip of the tooth is forced into it, so there is no scraping effect. On the contrary, dry pet food contains excess carbohydrates which break down into sugars that feed oral bacteria and lead to plaque and dental tartar.

Some of my clients feed raw chicken necks and backs to their dogs as part of their meals. The small bones in these pieces hold together and effectively scrape the teeth. I have seen an animal’s teeth go from nasty to nice when the owner has switched to this method of feeding.

Brushing a pet’s teeth is another oral hygiene technique that can help. The mistake that many owners make when brushing their animal’s teeth is that they attempt to pry the mouth open to get in there. A much easier way is to hold the pet’s mouth closed with one hand and brush the outsides of the teeth, under the cheeks, with the other. Most of the tartar forms on the outsides of the teeth anyway and most pets will not object to this method. Using specially made pet toothpaste is best since it has a flavor that animals like and it is free of fluoride.

How often do I recommend a pet’s teeth be professionally cleaned? That depends. The veterinarian cleans a pet’s teeth similarly to the way a dentist cleans ours. The only difference is that we have to put the pet under anesthesia to work in their mouths. For this reason, I do not advocate any particular schedule for all pets. The recommendation to clean a pet’s teeth depends on the amount of tartar and gingivitis present. If there is tartar present, then the teeth should be cleaned.

Any anesthetic procedure carries with it some risk. Although it is rare, there are times when a simple process can go wrong. To minimize the risk, all pets should have a complete physical exam and blood tests done before having anesthesia. As long as everything checks out okay, then get those teeth cleaned.

Although there is risk involved with anesthesia, there is also risk associate with dental disease. Each pet must be evaluated on a case by case basis to see if the benefits outweigh the risks.

No animal is too old to have her teeth cleaned. In fact, age is not a disease. It is true that older animals are more likely to have a health condition that increases the anesthetic risk, but it is the health condition, not the age, that is the issue. I have done dental work on 20 year old cats (my own) so the age of the animal does not deter me from pursuing what needs to be done if the risk assessment fits.

Clean teeth leads to better health and more pleasant pet kisses.


Are you afraid to have your pet’s teeth cleaned?

3 replies
  1. Chris
    Chris says:

    When you spoke of someone giving the raw necks and backs from chicken bones, I thought we aren’t suppose to give our dogs chicken bones of any kind. Cooked or raw??? What is up with that?

      • Dr. Doug
        Dr. Doug says:

        Chris and All,

        You read correctly, some of my clients feed raw chicken necks and backs to their dogs and this really does make a difference in the pet’s dental health. These are raw bones which are much more easily handled by dogs than cooked bones. Necks and backs also consist of small bones – thigh and leg bones are much more dangerous.

        I do not recommend this practice although I support those who feed this way. I had a client once who’s dog choked to death on a chicken neck so I do not feel comfortable suggesting people feed raw bones. Even one death out of a couple of hundred dogs I’ve known who eat bones is too many for me. I am more comfortable recommending professional dental cleanings when needed.


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