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Talking Teeth in Pet Dental Health Month

Posted in Festival of All Things Dental @ Jul 31st 2013 - By Dr Christine Hawke, Small Animal Dental Veterinarian, Sydney Pet Dentistry
Christine Hawke Image 1

As veterinary staff, we are all too aware of how difficult it can be to help owners understand the importance of pet dental health care.

To our trained eyes, it is obvious that most pets do not have healthy mouths. It frustrates us that their owners can’t see this, and won’t book their pets in for dental work that is so sorely needed (literally!).

One major reason that owners don’t recognise dental problems is that it is hidden, in the dark, inside the mouth. Even if the owner has a peek inside the mouth, they are often totally unaware of what is normal and what is trouble.

About 80% of dogs and cats over the age of three have some form of oral or dental pathology that needs treatment to relieve infection and pain. So, even if owners check their pet’s mouth, tartar deposits, red gums and gingival recession don’t always ring alarm bells as they are so common. Even bad breath, which is a sign of infection, is dismissed as a normal thing (ever heard the term ‘dog’s breath’ used as a compliment? Me neither!).

In short, most pet owners don’t know their pet has dental issues. Many practices are doing an awesome job of educating owners, using charts, dental models, posters and information handouts on the perils of dental disease.  But there is one more thing owners really need to know. One thing they don’t realise that makes all the difference in the world…..

Pets with severe dental disease will continue to eat DESPITE their pain.

It’s that simple. We can spend hours going through the details of dental disease, the risks to health, the discomfort and infection our patients are living with. And some owners get it straight away. But many will think ‘Well, he is still eating okay, so it CAN’T be that serious, huh? It can’t really be bad enough to need an anaesthetic, can it?’ Understandable, as eating is something we associate with being healthy. But this can be a dangerous assumption.

The truth is, animals are adept at hiding the signs of oral pain from us. A pet may not be able to hide the fact it is lame or has a draining abscess above it’s tail, but it can chew on one side, or even avoid chewing altogether (ever seen whole kibble in vomitus? Not an uncommon finding!). Animals will continue to eat until it becomes so painful that the option of starving to death becomes more attractive. This means waiting until they show signs of pain when eating can result in them enduring months or years of disease. When we help owners reframe the ‘he’s still eating’ response, the lights often come on, and they can then see what we see.

Helping owners realise that dogs and cats won’t tell them their mouths hurt makes the decision to treat dental disease that bit easier to make.

Five top tips for helping owners understand the need for dental care

1.     Bad breath is NOT normal.

Imagine if their partner, kids or friends smelt like their pet – they would definitely need a trip to the dentist! Bad breath means infection and pus.

2.      Use words that truly describe what is going on.

Plaque, tartar and gum recession don’t sound dangerous to health, they are words we see every day on our toothpaste tubes. Use words like pus, infection and jaw bone destruction (which is why we can see tooth roots in periodontal disease).

3.      Use human analogies.

Most people know how bad a toothache is, or a broken tooth, or bad ulcers in the mouth. What IS news to them is that dogs and cats have a very similar nerve supply. Things that hurt us will hurt their pets too. They are just better at hiding it than us.

4.      Use pictures to show what is happening.

While photos and posters are effective at showing what dental disease looks like, taking a quick snap of their pet’s mouth in the examination room lets them see firsthand what their own pet is suffering from. It’s dark in there, and pets will wriggle and squirm, so take a photo (I use my smartphone camera) that they can look at properly while their pet relaxes. Text or email them a copy so they can show their partner later at home.

5.      Remind them that animals will eat until they can’t.

Owners won’t always point out that their pet is still eating, and that this makes them skeptical of the need for dental treatment. Bring it up, and address the issue, to help them understand what is truly going on.


Dr Christine Hawke graduated as a vet from the University of Sydney in 1993, and spent four years in general practice both in Australia and the UK, during which time she disliked dentistry immensely. She returned to the University of Sydney in 1999, and completed her PhD in immunogenetics of autoimmune disease in 2003. After a break to start a family, Christine returned to the Faculty of Veterinary Science as a lecturer, where she developed an unexpected passion for small animal dentistry. 

Christine sat her ANZCVS memberships in Veterinary Dentistry in 2006 and is a member of both the Dental Chapter of the ANZCVS and the Australian Veterinary Dental Society (a SIG of the AVA). She founded Sydney Pet Dentistry in 2007 and divides her time between clinical dentistry and teaching all aspects of small animal dentistry to vets, vet nurses, and undergraduate students. 

Click here to visit 'Sydney Pet Dentistry' website 



Dentist Sunnyvale CA @ Sep 23rd 2013 9:00pm
Great and nice blog post.Useful information provided about dental care.Thanks :)
Peter Francisco @ Jun 22nd 2015 12:27am
Great read and very informative. Thanks! I'd just add that while you covered brushing, I've post an article on my blog which simply goes into further detail about brushing your dog's teeth. The post includes brushing techniques with images, how to pick the right toothbrush and toothpaste, and more. Here's a link:
Judy @ Jun 22nd 2015 6:14pm
Thanks Peter. Your link has some great tips too! Regards Judy

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