5 Steps to Help Keep Your Pet’s Mouth Healthy

By Dr. Becker DVM

  1. Feed a nutritionally optimal, species-specific, fresh food diet, and feed it raw if possible. When your dog or cat gnaws on raw meat, it acts as a kind of natural toothbrush and dental floss.
  2. If you have a dog, offer recreational bones and/or a fully digestible, high quality dental dog chew to help control plaque and tartar. The effect of dental chews is similar to raw bones, but safer for power chewers or dogs who have restorative dental work and can’t chew raw bones.
  3. Brush your pet’s teeth, preferably every day. A little time spent each day brushing your dog’s or kitty’s teeth can be tremendously beneficial in maintaining her oral health and overall well-being.
  4. Perform routine mouth inspections. Your pet should allow you to open his mouth, look inside, and feel around for loose teeth or unusual lumps or bumps on the tongue, under the tongue, along the gum line and on the roof of the mouth. After you do this a few times, you’ll become aware of any changes that occur from one inspection to the next. You should also make note of any differences in the smell of your pet’s breath that aren’t diet-related.
  5. Arrange for regular oral exams performed by your veterinarian. He or she will alert you to any existing or potential problems in your pet’s mouth, and recommend professional teeth cleaning under anesthesia, if necessary.

Daily homecare and as-needed professional attention by your veterinarian are the best way to keep your pet’s mouth healthy and disease-free. They are also important for pets with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure.

What to Expect From a Veterinary Oral Exam and Cleaning

Prior to the oral exam and cleaning, your pet should undergo a physical exam and blood tests to ensure she can be safely anesthetized for the procedure. The day of the cleaning, she’ll be sedated and a tube will be placed to maintain a clear airway and so that oxygen and anesthetic gas can be given.

An IV catheter should also be placed so that fluids and anesthesia can be administered as appropriate throughout the procedure. If you’re wondering why pets require general anesthesia and intubation for a seemingly simple procedure, there are a number of benefits:

  • Anesthesia immobilizes your dog or cat to insure her safety and cooperation during a confusing, stressful procedure
  • It provides for effective pain management during the procedure
  • It allows for a careful and complete examination of all surfaces inside the oral cavity, as well as the taking of digital x-rays, which are necessary to address issues that are brewing below the surface of the gums that can’t been seen and could cause problems down the road
  • It permits the veterinarian to probe and scale as deeply as necessary below the gum line where 60% or more of plaque and tartar accumulate
  • Intubation while the patient is under general anesthesia protects the trachea and prevents aspiration of water and oral debris

While your pet is anesthetized, her teeth will be cleaned with an ultrasonic scaler as well as a hand scaler to clean under and around every tooth. Your vet will use dental probes to measure the depths of the pockets in the gum around each tooth, and x-rays should be taken.

Once all the plaque and tartar is off the teeth, the animal’s mouth will be rinsed and each tooth will be polished. The reason for polishing is to smooth any tiny grooves on the teeth left by the cleaning so they don’t attract more plaque and tartar. After polishing, the mouth is rinsed again.

The oral exam, x-rays and cleaning with no tooth extractions usually takes about 45 minutes to an hour. The cost will depend on where you live, and typically ranges from around $400 to $1,000. Veterinary dental specialist visits will be more expensive; you’re paying for more specialized equipment and their ability to expertly manage complicated oral problems.

Extractions are typically priced according to the type of tooth and the time and work needed to remove it. There are simple extractions, elevated extractions, and extractions of teeth with multiple roots, which tend to be the priciest. Exceptional pain management after dental extractions should never be elective; always give adequate pain control for as long as necessary after more invasive dental procedures.

Can Your Dog’s Kiss Make You Sick?

By Dr. Karen Becker DVM

In a survey of 2,089 U.S. pet owners, more than half (52%) said they’re just fine with their dog licking, or “kissing,” their face.1 Another survey revealed that 52% of dog owners smooch their dog more than their significant others, while 61% kiss their dogs on the mouth.2

So it’s clear that many people who share their lives with dogs also share their affection with them — an understandable concept, since many regard their pet as part of the family.

From your dog’s point of view, licking your face is likely a sign of affection. Mother dogs lick their pups from the moment they’re born in order to clean them and stimulate breathing. Puppies will also lick around their mother’s mouth, which may be an instinct carried over from their wolf ancestors, which lick the mouths of adult wolves to trigger regurgitation of partially digested food.3

It’s possible, too, that your dog likes the way your skin tastes or licks your mouth because it contains some leftover food — as is often the case with children. Most likely, though, it’s a friendly gesture your dog uses to show you he loves you.

In dog packs, subordinate members often lick the dominant members to promote pack harmony, and doing so releases endorphins that promote feelings of pleasure.4 Giving your face a lick is probably an extension of this.

Can Kissing Your Dog Make You Sick?

In the majority of cases, a quick kiss from your dog is harmless and will serve to further cement your bond together. It is possible, though, that it could also expose you to bacteria or viral diseases that could, theoretically, make you sick. You may have also seen occasional cases highlighted in the media where a lick from a dog turns catastrophic.5

In Germany in 2019, a 63-year-old man died after becoming infected with capnocytophaga canimorsus bacteria. The bacteria are common in the mouths of dogs and cats, and it’s believed he was exposed when his dog licked him.

Severe and fatal infections occur more often in people with compromised immune systems, but the man in this case was previously healthy. He experienced flu-like symptoms, which progressed into severe sepsis and purpura fulminans, a condition involving blood spots, bruising and discoloration of the skin that can progress to necrosis.

“Pet owners with banal, for instance flu-like, symptoms should urgently seek medical advice when symptoms are unusual,” the researchers wrote in a case report in the European Journal of Case Reports in Internal Medicine.6 This is especially true if you’ve been bitten by your pet, even if it’s just a small nip.

In a separate case in 2019, a woman in Ohio had her hands and legs amputated due to an infection with capnocytophaga canimorsus, which she contracted from her German shepherd licking an open cut.7 According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), capnocytophaga have been detected in up to 74% of dogs, and it is a normal part of their flora.8

Another case occurred in 2018, resulting in an otherwise healthy 48-year-old losing his hands and feet due to capnocytophaga canimorsus. While doctors aren’t sure where he contracted the bacteria, they hypothesized that it was due to a dog lick.

Still, Dr. Silvia Munoz-Price, an infectious disease physician who treated the man doesn’t believe there’s cause for alarm: “I have a dog. Many people have dogs, and most of us will never have problems with infections related to our pets.”9 It’s important to understand, however, that capnocytophaga canimorsus rarely pose a risk to humans.

“[I]n the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong patient … it can lead to severe infections,” Dr. Stephen Cole, a lecturer in veterinary microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, told CNN, “but very, very rarely.”10 “Every time your dog licks you,” he added, “you may come into contact with this bacterium, but the vast, vast, vast majority of times, that causes absolutely no problem.”11