This article appears in Pets 2018 magazine.

Periodontal disease in pets is entirely preventable yet usually untreated, affecting most cats and dogs by age 3, according to the American Veterinary Dental College.

Why should a pet owner care? A broken tooth can put your pet in pain.

Pet owners need to be on the lookout for tooth decay because there are few signs of gum disease, which can cause multiple problems in a pet’s mouth and spread to internal organs, said Diane Delmain, feline assistant clinical professor community practice at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Warning signs

A broken tooth is incredibly common in dogs and cats, Delmain said. Teeth are tools for cats and dogs. Dogs can fracture a tooth in play biting chew toys, bones, rocks or other hard objects, Delmain said. Cats often break fang teeth when slipping while jumping on and off of things, she said.

“The problem is that animals don’t always tell us they’re in pain. They’re tough,” Delmain said.

The most obvious sign of a tooth problem is bad breath, Delmain said. It could be a sign of periodontal or other oral disease. Brown or discolored teeth and bleeding gums are also dental-health warning signs.

At the vet

Pets’ teeth are hard bone shells around a core of nerves and blood vessels, just like human teeth, Delmain said. If an infection is left untreated it can lead to an abcess forming, she said.

A fractured tooth can be sealed if it’s shallow, but if the fracture reaches the tooth’s pulp it needs to be removed, Delmain said. A broken tooth requires a visit to the veterinarian, who can assess the situation.

While human dentistry is about saving a tooth, pet dentistry is about the comfort of the tooth, Delmain said. If a veterinarian has to remove a pet’s tooth, the animal can do really well afterward.

“A nicely healed area of gum is nothing to worry about,” she said.

Because two-thirds of a tooth is under the gum line, dentistry with anesthesia is necessary to get rid of plaque and tartar, for teeth cleaning and X-rays, Delmain said. Without it, dental care can be scary for a dog or a cat.

Brushing at home

Regular dental checkups by a veterinarian should be augmented by brushing at home, Delmain said. Be sure to use products approved for pets.

Just like learning a new skill, getting a pet used to toothbrushing may take time. Start by letting your pet sniff the toothbrush and paste and try to work your way up to about 30 seconds of brushing on both sides.

Pet owners concerned about their pet’s oral health can look for products approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council, which have undergone research and testing to back up claims for home dental care, Delmain said. Look for a square label the says “VOHC Accepted” on products that help control tartar and plaque build-up.