More than 80 per cent of dogs and 70 per cent of cats develop an often hidden disease by the age of three*.
Dental disease is often overlooked and many pet owners may not even be aware their pet has an issue because pets are very good at hiding pain and discomfort.
"Dental disease causes painful inflamed gums, tooth decay, tooth loss and in severe cases even fractures to the jaw. It's actually an animal welfare issue, says Hill's pet nutrition vet, Dr Annabel Robertson.
So what causes it? According to Robertson: "It starts with plaque, that invisible furry stuff that is present on the pet's teeth – and on our own when we wake up in the morning. It's made up of bacteria and saliva and if not removed, it eventually hardens to become tartar - the yellow material on teeth."
That can lead to inflammation and damage to gums and, if not treated, there will eventually be a loss of the supporting structures of the tooth – leading to tooth loss. "Bad breath is often a sign of teeth/gum disease though it can also occur with certain underlying diseases and conditions (such as diabetes and kidney disease)," says Robertson.
Many people don't realise the benefits of good dental health aren't just confined to the mouth. Robertson says: "Because bacteria and inflammatory substances in the mouth can spread via the bloodstream, they can lead to problems in organs such as the heart, liver and kidneys.
She recommends having a look inside your pet's mouth every week and regular dental checks with a vet – just as humans do by going to the dentist regularly.
Signs to watch out for are:
•Material on the teeth
•Red and swollen gums
•Changes in eating (eg. a pet may consistently chew on one side) or the pet's behaviour may be out of character
•Shaking the head or rubbing the face
•Drooling and/or staining on the fur around the mouth
•Swelling around the eye
Keep an eye on things even if the pet doesn't appear to be in discomfort or pain, she says: "It's a common misconception that a pet with a sore mouth will stop eating. Most pets with dental disease will try and hide their pain and continue to eat their food."
So how to avoid dental problems in our animal companions? Robertson recommends daily brushing, starting after a pet has lost all its baby teeth at around 4-6 months, to get them accustomed to it.
"Daily brushing is the best thing you can do to keep a pet's teeth clean," she says. "You can buy pet toothbrushes and toothpaste – and it is very important not to use human toothpaste as it can be toxic to cats and dogs."
"I know this may not always be easy – my own cat can be a real challenge. There are numerous products on the market such as treats and chews and oral rinses as well as pet foods – and it's important to check the product has the Veterinary Oral Health Council seal of acceptance for plaque and tartar control."
The VOHC seal means a company has submitted their research to be reviewed and validated by a panel of veterinary dental specialists and scientists. The panel then decides if they will award the product a seal for plaque and/or tartar.
"Hill's Science Diet Oral care dog and cat food contains the seal for control of both plaque and tartar and keeping your pets teeth clean between vet check-ups can be as simple as feeding this food every day."
"It's basically an edible tooth brush," Robertson says. "The unique kibble has an innovative texture which prevents the kibble from immediately shattering when bitten into. Instead the tooth penetrates the kibble and the fibre texture gently scrubs the tooth clean like a squeegee before breaking apart."
It should only be used in pets over 12 months of age that have excellent dental health to help provide protection from plaque and tartar build up.
For further information chat to your veterinary health care team.
*Australian Veterinary Dental Society