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The Art of Aging Gracefully #4:

Dental health in the senior pet

In this fourth and final edition of our Art of aging Gracefully newsletters we’ll be discussing dental/oral health in senior pets. Contrary to the belief that bad breath or dental disease are simply “due to old age” there is no reason that our senior pets shouldn’t have good oral health to prevent pain, weight loss or the development of other related diseases. Just as senior humans continue to frequent the dentist and receive oral care, it is important we do the same for our pets, even as they age.

What does stinky breath have to do with health?

In short- a LOT! Although we often associate dogs especially with sometimes being smelly creatures, bad breath, more correctly called Halitosis, is NOT normal; even in older pets. Halitosis develops due to excess bacterial build up within the mouth, most notably on plaque or tartar. The bacteria use the rougher surfaces of plaque to provide grip that polished teeth don’t have which allows them to colonize the mouth in much higher concentrations. This also allows different bacterial types that would not normally be found in the mouth to survive. Unfortunately bad breath isn’t the only consequence of this process. The bacteria slowly eats away at the gumline where plaque has lead to inflammation (also known as gingivitis). This allows the bacteria to make their way into the blood stream and by consequence, to other organs such as the kidneys and the heart.

More recent studies have also shown that bad breath can lead to decreased intimate affection between pet and owner which, if you remember from our cognitive changes edition, can damage the bond between us in our pets and lead to increased anxiety in our seniors when suddenly we no longer want ‘kisses’ or for them to sit on our laps the way we used to.

What oral diseases do we see in seniors?

Just as in humans the older our pets get the more likely they are to develop issues relating to the teeth or gums. Examples include, but aren’t limited to, gingivitis, cancerous masses, tooth infections, fractured teeth and salivary gland issues. As we age our immune systems do too, making us less able to fight off infections, especially in areas with constant exposure to new pathogens such as the mouth. This makes the development of painful and dangerous conditions such as gingivitis and dental disease all the more likely. One of the most important things to remember is that just because the pet is eating, doesn’t mean it’s not in pain! Dogs and cats instinctively know to eat to survive, regardless of the discomfort. They aren’t conditioned in the way humans are to express our pain and receive help. In their minds eating is a requirement for survival and showing pain can make you out to be the “weak” member and attract predators. Imagine a toothache in yourself. Then imagine some of the dog or cat mouths you’ve probably seen where every tooth is affected and the gums are bright red and inflamed. Sounds awful right? Ensuring we take care of our seniors mouths means we’re ensuring they’re golden years are pain-free.

What can we do?

Luckily there are LOTS of options to improve oral health in our pets- even senior ones! The hands-down most important treatment method we have is a Comprehensive Oral Health Exam under general anesthetic. Also known as a dental surgery, this involves putting the animal under full anesthetic so that we can truly get into the mouth safely and examine the teeth above, and below, the gumline. Although general anesthetic can seem scary to some people it is the safest form of sedation for pets and there are many measures we can take beforehand, such as bloodwork, to reduce any risks involved. Full anesthetics also allows us to remove any problem teeth or masses while keeping the patient comfortable and our fingers safe! The remaining teeth will be cleaned and polished to reduce the speed in which plaque can rebuild. Every cat and dog will require at least one complete dental procedure in their lifetime!

Beyond a dental procedure there are many things you can do preventatively and in between full dentals. These include teeth brushing, enzymatic dental wipes, approved dental chews and water additives. We recommend looking for the VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council) seal on any product you are considering to ensure their claims in regards to dental health are actually true and tested. The best place to find successful dental products is your veterinary clinic-especially for pets with additional conditions such as allergies, weight issues, kidney disease etc.


Just because a pet is old doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the best in dental care! The mouth is a delicate and sensitive place with plenty of opportunity for things to go wrong! Dental/oral pain is one of the most underrealized forms of suffering in senior animals so it is important to stay on top of things and ask your veterinary team how best to ensure your pets golden years are as they should be: golden!

Don’t hesitate to contact us today to book a dental exam!

Written by Dr. Emily Zakrajsek

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