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At first glance, teeth seem to have little to do with overall pet health. Did you know, however, that by protecting your pet’s dental health you can protect its heart health? In fact, you can protect the health of many of your pet’s internal organs. How? Periodontal infections in the mouth can spread bacteria via the bloodstream to the liver, kidneys, and heart. Therefore, a healthy mouth contributes to a healthy heart, liver, and kidneys.

According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, an astonishing 70% of cats and 80% of dogs have signs of oral disease by the age of 3. Signs of oral disease include persistent bad breath, a change in eating or chewing habits, reluctance to eat, dropping food from the mouth, swallowing food whole, abnormal drooling, pawing at the face or mouth, and subdued behavior. If your pet is exhibiting any of these symptoms, a dental exam is warranted.

Like people, cats and dogs need professional care and routine home care of their teeth and gums. A thin film of protein from food, saliva, and dead cells forms on your pet’s teeth and gums. If this layer is allowed to thicken, it becomes a welcoming environment for bacteria. Bacterial plaque build up along the gum line leads to gingivitis—inflammation of the gums. At this stage the gums may be red or swollen. As calcium salts are deposited into the bacterial plaque, it becomes a hardened tartar that is usually yellow or brown in color. Gingivitis, plaque, and tartar build up can lead to inflammation and infection of the deeper surrounding teeth tissues. This is known as periodontitis and can lead to tooth loss as the bleeding gums recede away from the teeth.

Early stages of gingivitis are reversible. Unfortunately, periodontitis cannot be reversed. It can only be controlled and prevented from progressing. Both conditions can be painful to your pet. Cats are prone to tooth enamel resorption at the gum line, and this can be extremely painful. Older pets, smaller dog breeds, and certain cat breeds—such as Maine Coon, Persian, Himalayan and Siamese—are predisposed to developing dental disease.

Once your pet has been diagnosed with gingivitis or periodontitis, a professional teeth cleaning is essential. We perform sub gingival scaling to remove bacteria that are hiding below the gum line. This is impossible with a conscious patient, so general anesthesia is required to perform a thorough teeth cleaning. To ensure safety, we use gas anesthetics and often perform presurgical blood work since many affected patients are older. Generally, we place intravenous catheters to allow easy administration of fluids and drugs. Your pet may need gingival surgery or tooth extractions with its dental cleaning. Lastly, we polish the teeth. After this extensive workup, at-home dental care begins.

Regular brushing is considered the gold standard for home pet dental health. Some pets initially resist brushing, but most will eventually accept it. Aim to brush your pet’s teeth daily or at least every other day to remove plaque before bacteria have a chance to colonize. Start gradually and make teeth brushing a rewarding experience for both of you. Use pet toothpaste with a flavor that your pet likes. Always avoid human toothpaste, which may upset your pet’s stomach. Place a small amount of the flavored pet toothpaste on your finger and offer it daily as a treat. The pet becomes conditioned to the toothpaste as a reward. Once your pet is accepting of toothpaste, take your finger covered with toothpaste and simulate the brushing movements of a toothbrush. Praise your pet often during this for positive reinforcement.

After a week or so, introduce a small, soft-bristled toothbrush. Position the bristles at a 45-degree angle to the tooth and move in small circular strokes—much as you would brush your own teeth. Concentrate on the outer surfaces of the teeth. The inner surfaces of teeth are usually much cleaner due to tongue movements and chewing action. If your pet resists the toothpaste initially, try dipping your finger into flavored bouillon (for a dog) or tuna water (for a cat) and then rub your finger over your pet’s teeth. Gradually transition to gauze and then to a soft bristled tooth brush coated with the flavored bouillon or tuna water treat. Graduate to pet toothpaste once your furry friend is ready. Above all else, do not force the issue—your pet may instinctively bite, thinking it is protecting itself.

Obviously not all pets (especially cats) are amicable to daily tooth brushing. Neither are all owners. Fortunately, there are additional ways to help prevent dental disease, although tooth brushing still remains the therapy of choice. Specific toys, treats, chews, and specially formulated foods are available to help clean your pet’s teeth. The ever-popular Greenie chew is a prime example. Hills Prescription Diet T/D is a tartar control diet that cleans teeth as your pet chews the specially formulated kibble. This diet is available for both dogs and cats.

Do not offer your dog cow hooves for chewing. These exceedingly hard objects are one of the primary causes of fractured or broken teeth. When you are purchasing treats or foods, look for the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval. Visit the VOHC website for a list of approved products. Your veterinarian may also recommend special rinses, sprays, or gels—such as Oravet—to maintain your pet’s oral health. A new vaccine is becoming available to help combat dental disease, and it shows promise in those breeds that are genetically predisposed.

Keep in mind that diligent home dental care will reduce the number of professional cleanings needed. Also remember that taking care of your pet’s oral health is taking care of your pet’s overall health.