Don’t overlook pet’s oral hygiene

Doggie breath could be serious



We’ve all caught a whiff of kitty or doggy breath that knocks us over. Vets will tell us to brush our pets’ teeth, and some animal guardians do this, but many of us wait too long to give our animals a good teeth cleaning.

Their breath is telling us more about their health than what they just ate. Periodontal disease is common, and left untreated can lead to expensive health issues.

I know from experience seeing animals brought to shelters, humane societies or rescues that extensive dental issues are a major reason people surrender their pets.

Preventive dental bills are far less expensive than the cost for total tooth extraction or heart and kidney disease, which can be brought on by gum disease. There are insurance policies that cover our pets, and some reduced-cost clinics are available.

In this Q&A we get answers about our pets’ pearly whites from Darlene Geekie-Hernandez, a registered vet technician who owns the Veterinary Angels Medical Center in Agoura Hills and its nonprofit, the Little Angels Project.

Q: What causes bad breath?

A: Bad breath is most often it is the result of dental disease. It affects both dogs and cats and can occur in pets as young as 1 to 2 years of age. Most dogs and cats seen have some degree of dental disease by age 2. Proper oral care can help save money and prevent tooth loss when started early. Plaque and tartar build up on your pet’s teeth, affecting not only the tooth itself but the tissues and bone around their teeth.

Q: What causes plaque and tartar, and what are they?

A: Plaque is a sticky film of bacteria that grows on the surface of the mouth and sticks to teeth. It combines with salts present in saliva, and as it accumulates it starts to harden and calcify into tartar. As it builds up you see brown or tan deposits on your dog’s or cat’s teeth. Plaque is the leading cause of dental disease in pets.

Q: What happens if you don’t treat the tartar?

A: What you see on your pet’s teeth is only the tip of the iceberg. Sixty percent of the tooth is under the gumline where you can’t see with the naked eye. Tartar carries billions of bacteria that, when left untreated, find their way down under that gumline, causing infection from mild to severe. This leads to gingivitis, tooth decay, bone loss, periodontal disease and, eventually, the need for extraction of teeth.

Q: Losing teeth sounds serious. Are there other issues that happen from dental disease?

A: Absolutely! Bacteria in the mouth not only affects the oral cavity but it can have an effect on the heart, kidneys and overall health if left untreated.

Q: How can you prevent problems to begin with?

A: First, have your vet evaluate what they can see in the mouth to determine the best course of action for early prevention. Depending upon the level of buildup, this can be done with or without anesthesia. Although non-anesthetic cleaning is available it does not replace a professional dental cleaning with X-rays.

Twice-a-year vet visits can give your pet a fighting chance against dental disease. It also allows your pet to be fully evaluated for other problems.

Q: How often should your pet’s teeth be checked?

A: Getting their teeth checked should be part of an annual exam. Again, issues caught early cost less to treat. We recommend doing an OraStrip test at least twice a year to monitor dental bacteria. This is a simple test wiped on the gums of your pet’s teeth to check the level of bacteria under the gumline. This helps us monitor what we can’t see and helps us make a better plan for early care before the point of severe disease.

Work with your veterinarian to develop a good preventive program to reduce further damage to your pet’s health and your pocketbook.

I also recommend pet insurance for all pets. Pet insurance can be a major help with overall cost of care for your pets. Medical care is rising, and expenses are a leading cause for animals being surrendered at our city shelters.

Berke is a local animal advocate with more than 30 years of experience in rescue, care and adoption. Send email to her at