Cat & Dog Dental Exams - The What, Why, & How

“Is dental work really necessary for dogs?” and “Do cats need dental exams?” — these are some of the most common questions we get from our wonderful pet parents. And the answer to both questions is a resounding YES!

Aside from giving your pet a winning smile, a dog dental exam or cat dental exam, done on a regular basis, will keep the pet's teeth intact. This largely contributes to their quality of life. Regular pet dental exams also help keep periodontal disease away. Left untreated, periodontal disease will cause pain, tooth loss, and widespread issues such as liver disease, heart disease, and so on. 

If you’d like to learn more about cat or dog dental exams, you’re in the right place. This complete, vet-approved guide covers everything you need to know. 

What’s in this Guide

A dog getting a pet dental exam at Sploot Veterinary Care a primary and urgent care veterinarian in Denver and Chicago

What Is a Dog Dental Exam or Cat Dental Exam?

A cat or dog dental exam is a branch of complete preventive pet care. A cat or dog dental exam involves a thorough assessment of the oral cavity — above and below the gumline. This procedure can only be done by a veterinarian or a veterinary dental specialist. A cat or dog dental exam may require 2-3 visits as it involves the following stages: 

Visit 1: Physical Exam & Bloodwork 

Veterinary dental exams require the use of anesthesia to ensure a safe and stress-free experience for the dog or cat undergoing it. But before pets can be given anesthesia, a physical exam and bloodwork is done to make sure that they are physically healthy for the procedure. During this visit, the veterinarian will also go over details of the procedure along with cost estimates.  

Around a week to a month after this physical exam is done, the dental exam proper can be scheduled, depending on the clinic’s availability.  

Visit 2: Dental Exam & Radiography (with Dental Cleaning, Extraction, etc.)

Veterinary dental exams are often not an end in and of themselves. Typically, dental exams are followed by dental cleaning, tooth extractions, and other dental procedures that a pet may need. 

A. Cat or Dog Dental Exam & Radiography

First, the vet will assess the pet’s teeth and gums. Each tooth is inspected for tooth fractures, tooth decay, mobility, and etc.  

For a more in-depth assessment of the dog or cat’s dental health, the veterinarian may use specialized instruments (e.g. periodontal probe) to assess the condition of the teeth and gums — as some issues may not be immediately visible to the naked eye.  

To see the condition of structures below the gumline, the veterinarian will request a dental x-ray. This is important because periodontal disease or gum disease starts below the gumline and will not be visible on the surface until the disease has already advanced.  

B. Teeth Cleaning & Polishing for Dogs & Cats 

Similar to humans, routine teeth  cleaning and polishing is important for cats and dogs because it helps to remove the tartar and plaque build-up which can lead to periodontal disease. 

Here at Sploot, our veterinary nurses use tools like manual scalers and ultrasonic scalers to remove tartar, plaque and calculus from the tooth’s surface and in between tooth crevices. After this step, they polish the dog or cat’s teeth using prophylaxis paste or prophy paste, a gritty material that leaves the teeth clean, white, and glistening.    

Note: During this stage, the veterinarian will also be able to remove any foreign objects that are stuck between the animal’s teeth. The veterinarian will also assess oral masses (i.e. visible swellings inside the dog or cat’s mouth) if present — and recommend tissue biopsies if necessary. 

The recommended frequency for cleanings varies by breed and overall oral health, but generally vets recommend that pets get their teeth professionally cleaned once per year. 

C. Tooth Extraction & Other Dental Procedures 

Depending on the needs of your pet, the veterinarian may recommend tooth extractions or other dental procedures. Veterinary tooth extractions are usually performed for severe tooth decay, mobile teeth, retained baby teeth, and advanced gum disease. Tooth extractions for dogs and cats typically need stitches at the extraction site — with sutures that will dissolve within 10 - 14 days.  

Alternatives to tooth extraction include tooth fillings and root canals, which are treatments that preserve the function of the tooth. These may only be done for certain degrees of tooth decay. 

In case of gum diseases like gingivitis or periodontal disease, other types of dental surgery may be required — including root planing (for gingivitis) and periodontal debridement (for periodontal disease. 

Note: Tooth fillings, root canals, root planing, and periodontal debridement are procedures that require care from a dental specialist. A primary & urgent care veterinary clinic like Sploot Veterinary Care will be able to stabilize the pet’s condition and manage pain before referring the patient to a dental specialist.

D. Post-Procedure Instructions From the Vet 

Once your pet has had their teeth cleaned and other dental issues addressed, the veterinarian will give you instructions and recommendations. These instructions will be specific to the procedures that your pet had during their dental appointment. 

After Teeth Cleaning

If your pet only had teeth cleaning (and no other procedure on top of it), the veterinarian will likely only recommend the following: 

  • A reduced food amount - pets may feel nauseous if they eat large amounts of food soon after being sedated. 
  • A place to rest - both dogs and cats will be tired or sleepy for 12 to 24 hours after anesthesia. It is recommended that they are given a comfortable place to rest. 
  • Medication - the veterinarian may give medications to help with issues like gingivitis in dogs and cats.
After Tooth Extraction

If your cat or dog went through tooth extraction (which are likely to have sutures), you will be given instructions for: 

  • What pain medication and antibiotics to buy;
  • When to give medication to your pet;
  • What to feed your pet after tooth extraction; and 
  • When a follow-up appointment is necessary. 
  • How to maintain your pet’s dental health between cleanings

Visit 3: Post-Procedure Check-Up 

Around 14 days after a dental procedure (i.e. tooth extraction and other types of dental surgery), the veterinarian will conduct a post-procedure check-up to monitor the healing of the tooth extraction site or the site of the dental surgery. 

Close up of a cat undergoing a post-procedure check-up after a cat dental exam

How Often Do Cats and Dogs Need Dental Exams

Generally, it is recommended for cats and dogs to get a dental exam once a year. But veterinarians may give another time frame depending on the unique needs of your pet. 

On top of getting regular dental exams and teeth cleaning, it is important to maintain good pet oral hygiene at home. The regular brushing of your pet’s teeth (using vet-approved dental products) is essential. 

When Should My Dog or Cat Start Having Regular Dental Care?

After the one-year mark, the general consensus is that a pet is no longer a puppy or kitten (except in the hearts of their pet parents!)

When puppies become dogs and kittens become cats, they need to start having regular dental exams. Specifically, cats should start dental exams after one year of age, and dogs should start dental exams after two years of age.

However, there are some exceptions — such as smaller breeds that may need dental exams sooner; or brachycephalic (i.e. flatter and wider face) breeds of dogs and cats that may need more frequent dental exams than other breeds. 

Be sure to consult with your vet during your pet’s puppy wellness exam or kitten wellness exam to know the best timeframe for your pet’s dental visits. 

Do Cats and Dogs Need to be Sedated for Teeth Cleaning?

Yes, cats and dogs typically need to be sedated for teeth cleaning. Teeth cleaning is a complex procedure. Thus, it is nearly impossible to do safely and effectively without the use of sedation. 

Vets use general anesthesia to ensure the safety and comfort of the animal. Using general anesthesia helps to ensure that your pet will be pain-free and stress-free during the procedure, no matter how complicated the dental work may be.

We know that general anesthesia is not exactly something that all pet parents are immediately comfortable with. However, the alternative cat or dog dental cleaning WITHOUT anesthesia is NOT as thorough. Vets who do this type of procedure won’t be able to effectively access the gumline where disease-causing bacteria accumulate.  

In addition, anesthesia-free teeth cleaning for pets carries a higher risk of aspiration. Sploot’s Medical Director, Dr. Christina Mote, DVM states, “[when undergoing anesthesia-free dental cleaning for pets], there’s a concern of not having a protected airway. Dogs and cats are thus at a higher risk of aspiration, which is when fluid, debris, etc. is accidentally breathed into the lungs. [Here at Sploot], we intubate pets when anesthetized to minimize airway concerns.”

As a final note for this section, though anesthesia is never without risk (even in people), it is still generally safer than anesthesia-free dental exams and dental cleaning. Furthermore, an experienced vet will be able to calculate the safest level of anesthesia that your cat or dog needs. 

Note: If you have specific concerns regarding anesthesia and your pet, you can discuss these with your vet to build an appropriate plan to minimize risks.

A cat getting prepared for pet dental exam at Sploot Veterinary Care a primary and urgent care vet clinic in Denver and Chicago

How Do I Prepare My Cat or Dog for Dental Cleaning and/or Tooth Extractions?

After the pre-surgical physical exam and bloodwork is done for a cat or dog, the next step is to choose a date for the dental exam and dental cleaning (which may be done with other needed procedures.) After you’ve booked this second visit, here are general guidelines on how to prepare your pet:

  1. Keep your cat or dog quiet and calm before the procedure. 
  2. Fast your pet (from both food and water) for 8-12 hours before the cat or dog dental cleaning procedure. This helps to prevent the risk of vomiting from the anesthesia. Your vet will give more specific instructions on how much and when to feed your cat or dog before dental cleaning. 
  3. Schedule the pet dental exam and cat or dog dental cleaning procedure in advance. This helps you secure your most preferred time.

Cat and Dog Dental Exam at Sploot Vets

We hope you found this guide on cat and dog dental exams helpful. If you have specific questions about maintaining great oral hygiene for pets, Sploot Veterinary Care is here for you! We have a winning team of experienced and animal-loving veterinarians. You can be sure that your cat or dog will be in good hands for their dental exam, teeth cleaning, and other dental care needs. What’s more is we provide a calm and stress-free environment where both you and your pet can relax.

If you have further questions, feel free to give us a call or book an appointment here. Till next time, we’re with you every pounce of the way!

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