Pet Dental Disease: does it really hurt?

One of the most common things I hear about pet dental disease in my consult room is that a dog or cat can’t possible have a sore mouth because they are still eating normally. Well, today I want to tear this myth apart, talk to you about dental disease and, just briefly, about the discomfort and the pain of periodontal disease in pets.

So if you're wondering if your pet's mouth is sore and whether they should have a dental, or you just want to know what my response is, make sure you read right to the end!


Pet dental disease is painful

Have you ever had toothache yourself, for whatever reason? It could be a chipped tooth with the root exposed or an infection at the base of the tooth. Do you even just suffer from very sensitive teeth? If you’ve answered yes then you'll know that it is INCREDIBLY painful. It just takes over all of our thoughts and can be pretty incapacitating. If you think of it in vet terms then dental pain is definitely quality of life compromising!

The dental pain our pets suffer from is really are no different.

What is different is the fact that they are much better at hiding and putting up with this pain. Don’t mistake this stoicism for comfort. They are definitely painful.

How to age in reverse!

What will often happen is that a dental procedure is only carried out once a pets breath has become completely unbearable for the owner. Frequently multiple diseased teeth will be removed and at the post-procedure check-up a week later the owner will comment that their dog is behaving like a puppy again or their cat has started playing for the first time in a long time.

This is because the source of pain has been removed and for the first time in a long time they are living without being in chronic pain. Just imagine the relief they must feel!

What is dental disease?

Dental disease is a spectrum. It starts of with plaque forming which then leads to tartar formation. This is seen as brown deposits on the teeth, typically next to the gum line with the top and back teeth being most affected in the majority of pets. Just lift your pets lip and have a look but if they are over 3 years of age then there is an 80% chance some tartar is present.

This tartar should act as an indication that you need to step up your game of dental prevention. This can take many forms which I’ve discussed in more detail in my article about how to keep teeth clean.

Tartar alone is not painful but will soon result in gingivitis that can become progressively more uncomfortable. Gingivitis and tartar formation is nothing if not progressive. As it develops the gums start to recede and the bone forming the tooth socket becomes more and more eroded. Do you think infection eating away bone is painful?!

A broken tooth is another clearly (or so you would think) painful condition. Sure, there are the odd fractures which do not expose the root canal, but the majority do. Once open, bacteria have direct access to the inside of the tooth where they can flood the base causing a delightfully painful tooth root abscess. In fact it’s not all that uncommon for these abscesses to get so bad that they actually burst through the skin just under an animals eye.

I’ll say that again. Tooth root infections result in abscesses that explode out the side of a dog or cats face (and no, I’m not being particularly dramatic).

Cats also have an extra painful condition to deal with. They can develop resorption lesions, whereby the tooth enamel gets eroded away to expose the sensitive internal structures of the tooth. This is exceptionally painful more often than not.

Ignoring dental disease only allows it to get worse and your pet to be in pain for longer. Tackling it early and starting preventive measures can even mean that your pet never need suffer from dental pain.

Removing tooth pain and eliminating dental disease

Dental disease is not going to get better by itself (I know I just said this but it’s worth repeating!). We need to remove the source of pain and in the vast majority of cases this means removing the affected teeth. In certain situations root canal treatment may be appropriate but this is not always available and generally comes at a higher cost.

Please don't ignore your vet's advice with regards dental treatment. Please don't be the owner who just ignores their dogs dental disease, who ignores their cats dental disease, who thinks that a fractured tooth can go untreated.

Antibiotics might make things a little bit better in the short term. But they are not going to correcting the underlying defects and pathology present. Having your pet's mouth examined and probed under anesthesia is very important, followed by addressing every problem that is found. In most cases this means removal of every affected tooth.

Pet Dental disease and body health

All of this talk of pain is perhaps ignoring the other major effect that dental disease has on your pet. Dental disease also causes a reduction in general body health, it has been implicated in conditions like kidney disease and certain types of heart failure, makes diseases like diabetes harder to manage and is associated with a reduced lifespan.

Even more reasons to stop ignoring it as a problem that needs addressing.

And as for what I say when people assure me their pet with a rotting mouth is comfortable because they are eating?

Your dog or your cat only knows that they need to eat to survive. They don't think, “Well, if I stop eating, my owner will take me to the vet and will get my dental disease addressed”. They think more along the lines of “if I stop eating, I'm going to die”.

So just think then how severe the pain has to be for them to stop eating! Don’t leave it that long, please.

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