News Item | PAWS Chicago

A Guide to Pet Dental Care

by Dr. Barbara Royal, DVM | Nov 01, 2010

The gnawing concerns from owners about veterinary dental hygiene.

Can you clean an animal’s teeth without anesthesia? If a tooth is broken, does it have to be removed?

  • Isn’t bad dog breath unavoidable?
  • Which is safer: rawhides, compressed vegetable chew treats, synthetic bones, cooked bones, raw bones, or none of the above?
  • Why do some dogs have more tartar than others?
  • Do I really need to brush my dog’s teeth – and for heaven’s sake, chicken flavored toothpaste – ugh!
  • What about dry food?

What do you think of when you think about dental tartar and dental disease in your pet? Maybe bad breath or trouble chewing, but usually we don’t link dental disease with any serious health risks. 

Unfortunately, this assumption is not true. Indeed, dental disease can contribute to serious health problems. These include heart and lung disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, kidney disease, leukemia, cancers, abscesses and gum disease. So clearly it’s not just about a pretty smile. Dental care is important to systemic health. 

Many pet owners are nervous about doing a dental cleaning because of the risks associated with anesthesia. This is a valid concern, but at the same time, many animals need to have the full anesthetic procedure to properly clean the teeth under the gums and maybe to do extractions and/or treat cavities. 

What is possible without anesthesia? With a proper assessment and a good temperament (both animal and veterinary), it is possible to chip off tartar and polish teeth while they are awake. 

Is a dental cleaning without anesthesia a good idea? It is certainly not perfect. But where animals have an otherwise healthy mouth and willing temperament, it may be worth doing to avoid the risks of anesthesia. Non-anesthesia dentals can still significantly improve breath, dental condition and overall health. 

It’s difficult to fully clean under the gums with an awake animal. And clearly no extractions or dental radiographs are possible. But a lot can be done without anesthesia. And sometimes, in animals that cannot tolerate anesthesia, cleaning the teeth this way may be a useful alternative. 

At my practice, after a careful dental assessment by the veterinarian, we schedule an hour-long cleaning appointment, and have extra staff available to help calm and hold up the lips. With calm pets, we often clean all the teeth in one appointment. Some animals need a break and we schedule several shorter visits. After removing the tartar, we can then polish the teeth with a pumice and gauze to help keep the tartar from returning. 

There is always the risk, after chipping off tartar, of finding something more sinister below, requiring anesthesia to repair or remove. But if you are prepared for that possibility, it is reasonable to try. Once teeth are clean, you can keep them that way by brushing. It’s even helpful if you can only get to it a few times a week (I know how hard it is to keep up on every day pet toothbrushing.) 

Dental disease is also affected by genetics, chewing behavior, nutrition, systemic disease, treats, and even stress. Not every dog is born with a perfect set of teeth or an even bite. Many dogs are also born with a tendency to harbor bacteria that is more prone to produce tartar.


One answer is blowing in the wind, literally. Yes, fresh air, not saliva is one of the causes of significant tartar buildup. Saliva has enzymes to help keep the mouth clean after a meal. Many veterinarians have seen that “mouth breathers,” like chronically nervous or panting dogs and brachycephalic dogs, have more trouble with tartar buildup. As the oral cavity dries out, the gums, tongue and teeth aren’t kept moist and tartar, which is sticky, builds up more quickly. Of course, this situation may be difficult to do anything about. 

Cracked or broken teeth 

A tooth that is cracked or broken doesn’t always present a health risk. If there is no pulp (nerve and blood vessels) exposure, and the animal isn’t obviously in pain, sometimes a veterinary dentist will try a conservative approach and only take action if there are signs of an abscess or pain. (Signs to look for include your pet avoids chewing, paws at the mouth, foul odor from the mouth, or excessive drooling.) Injured teeth can be extracted, or you can opt for a root canal or other restorative solution. Dental specialists (in Chicago there is the brilliant Dr. Cindy Charlier to whom I often refer patients) can do amazing things to save teeth. 

Dental Chews and Bones 

Chewing on certain types of bones, rawhides can help reduce tartar and keep the gums healthy. Every dog is different in how they chew a bone. Some are gulpers. Gulpers generally do not do well with bones/rawhides. But calm chewers can benefit from a good American-made plain rawhide, bully stick, ostrich tendon or other animal-parts chews. Raw bones can be great, albeit a little messy – with the same restrictions. 

Never offer cooked bones as they splinter off in dangerously sharp pieces that are serious trouble for the dog if swallowed. It’s always best to keep a close watch on an animal while they are chewing any bone to avoid problems. And consider throwing out the bone before it becomes small enough to swallow whole. 

I do not recommend offering compressed vegetable/wheat bones like those green ones because I am never a fan of adding wheat or soy products (a main ingredient) to a dog’s diet. There are better ways to keep a dog’s teeth clean and keep a dog healthy through good moist food, brushing, animal product chew treats. 


Brush Brush Brush. Brushing your pet’s teeth is a great idea. Tartar takes 2-3 days to fully set, so even brushing just a few times a week can do a lot of good. Use pet (not human) toothpastes (the fluoride is too strong for them), or even a paste of baking soda and water. But once tartar is solidly on the tooth, it usually won’t come off with just brushing. 

Dry Food 

Dry food is not, by nature, better for the teeth. It does not “chip off tartar.” In fact, many dry foods contribute to tartar production by sticking on the teeth. And since dogs don’t floss after meals, the tartar builds. It is often easier for animals to lick canned or raw foods cleanly off their teeth. Foods and treats that have fewer sticky carbs in general are best – avoid wheat, corn, sugars, molasses, soy and peanut butter. 


Bad breath in a pet can mean that there are other issues – gastrointestinal issues, systemic disease, dental problems or gum disease. It is surprising how many owners ignore their pet’s progressive bad breath as just an unavoidable part of pet ownership. Instead, ask your vet about it and rule out these treatable problems.

Teeth cleaning without anesthesia in dogs and cats has become a hot topic for both veterinarians and owners. There is always an element of risk with anesthesia, so it is reasonable to be extremely careful about its use. Here are some guidelines to consider when thinking about dental care and your pet.


  1. Does your pet have the temperament that would allow someone’s hands in their mouth and not bite the hand that cleans them? 
  2. Will your pet think the dental is terrifying? If your pet is going to be so stressed by being held still for the dental, it may be better overall to have an anesthetic on board. 
  3. If your pet stresses easily, are there any other significant health issues that stress of an awake dental could worsen? 
  4. Do any teeth need to be extracted or radiographed? 
  5. Is there any other oral disease (masses, gum disease, severe gingival recession, fractured teeth) that could benefit from anesthesia? 
  6. Is there any other reason you might want to have an anesthetic procedure anyway (mass removal, neuter)? And could you do both safely at the same time? 
  7. How expert is the person doing the dental? 
  8. Is a vet there if needed? 
  9. What is the dental procedure?