While your general practitioner veterinarian can perform routine teeth cleanings and dental examinations, certain problems require the care of a doctor who has had specialized training in veterinary dentistry in order to provide the very best outcome for your pet. Your veterinary dental specialist will work closely with your general practitioner veterinarian to resolve your pet's dental problem.

What Is a Board Certified Specialist in Veterinary Dentistry? 

A board certified specialist in veterinary dentistry, also known as a veterinary dentist, is a licensed veterinarian who has obtained intensive, additional training in the following areas:

  • Periodontics
  • Endodontics
  • Restorative dentistry
  • Oral surgery
  • Prosthodontics
  • Orthodontics

Why Does My Pet Need a Veterinary Dentist?

Just as your own primary care physician may feel the need to refer you to the care of a specialist from time to time, your general practitioner veterinarian may feel your pet needs the additional expertise of a board certified dentist for certain conditions, such as root canal or oral surgery. In addition, board-certified veterinary dentists also often have access to specialized diagnostic or treatment equipment that can enhance the outcome of your pet's case, as well as specialized knowledge about the most appropriate pain control and medication options needed to treat your pet's dental problem. It is very important to remember that dental disease is the most common problem to affect small animals of any age. In fact, veterinary experts estimate that up to 80% of dogs and 70% of cats that do not receive proper dental care will develop signs of dental disease by the age of three. For these reasons, it is very important that your pet receives regular dental care and cleanings from your general practitioner veterinarian and, when required, more advanced care from a veterinary dental specialist. (Note: Some veterinarians routinely refer all clients to a dental specialist for that aspect of a pet's health care.)You can be assured that a veterinarian who knows when to refer you and your pet to a veterinary dentist or other specialist is one that is caring and committed to ensuring that your pet receives the highest standard of care for his or her problem.What Kinds of Problems Require the Expertise of a Veterinary Dentist? Board certified veterinary dentists can perform all routine veterinary care, such as routine dental examinations and cleanings. They are specially trained, however, to handle more complicated problems such as oral surgery, endodontics (fracture repair, root canal), extraction, prosthodontic implants, and orthodontics (yes, pets can wear braces, too!). Oral masses or lesions should also be examined by a veterinary dentist.

Will My Regular Veterinarian Still Be Involved? 

Your regular veterinarian will still supervise your pet's overall veterinary care, and will consult with the veterinary dentist regarding any pre or post treatment care. In general, the veterinary dentist treats the problem and reports findings and recommendations back to your general practitioner veterinarian. In some practices, only non-routine or complicated cases are referred to the dental specialist; in other practices, all dental care is referred to the specialist.

Signs That a Pet May Need Dental Care:

  • Bad breath
  • Drooling or excessive salivation
  • Pawing at the teeth or mouth
  • Discoloration or staining of the teeth
  • Visible tartar on the teeth
  • Red, irritated, swollen, or bleeding gums
  • Loose or missing teeth
  • Difficulty eating
  • Discharge from the nose
  • Swelling under the eyes
  • Weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Lethargy and loss of vitality
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Frequently Asked Questions

While the quality of dental care we can now offer to pets is very similar to what humans enjoy, there is one important difference: you can't explain to your pet what is happening and why. For that reason, pets must be anesthetized for anything other than the most cursory of examinations. In order to perform a thorough checkup, your veterinarian or trained veterinary dental technician needs to be able to visualize all your pet's teeth'"even those in the back of his or her mouth'"and be able to access the entire mouth with instruments during the cleaning procedure. For more complicated procedures, such as tooth extractions, oral surgery, and root canal, it is essential.

The best answer is with prevention. Starting at the age of one year, your pet should have an annual dental examination and cleaning. While the damage caused by periodontal disease is generally irreversible, it can be stopped and treated with antibiotics and regular cleaning. In between your pet's examination, you should follow your veterinarian's advice regarding home dental care for your pet, including daily tooth cleanings and special dental care diets and treats. There are several stages of periodontal disease. The first stages can be treated with cleanings, medications, and scalings. At the later stages, surgery is necessary to treat the affected teeth.

While there is always a slight risk when using anesthesia on a pet, or even a person for that matter, today's veterinary anesthetic agents are extremely safe. To further maximize your pet's safety, your veterinary team will recommend preanesthetic testing to make sure there are no hidden health problems that could compromise your pet's ability to undergo the procedure. In addition, your pet will be monitored while under the anesthesia and during recovery. The risk of disease from dental problems is far greater than any risks presented by the anesthesia. Owners are often especially concerned about anesthetizing older pets. However, many dental problems can be extremely painful as well as contribute to the development of systemic disease. With pets today living longer and longer, owners must weigh, in consultation with their veterinarian, the risks and benefits of allowing an older pet to possibly live years with a painful condition.

Veterinarians who want to become board certified in veterinary dentistry must seek additional, intensive training to become a specialist and earn this prestigious credentialing. Specialty status is granted by the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC). A veterinarian who has received this specialty status will list the initials, 'DAVDC,' after his or her DVM degree. Or, the veterinarian may indicate that he or she is a 'Diplomate' of the AVDC. The word 'Diplomate' typically means the specialist has achieved the following:

Obtained a veterinary degree (three to four years of college plus four years of veterinary school).

Completed at least an additional two years of advanced training, including a residency at an AVDC approved facility or other AVDC approved alternate program. Dental residents must complete a case log of at least 500 cases as well as prepare case reports. Because veterinary dentists must anesthetize pets, take radiographs, and perform surgery, they are also required to complete additional, intensive training in the field of anesthesia, surgery, and radiology.

Completed the credentialing application process established by the AVDC.

Passed a rigorous examination.

After completing all of these requirements, the veterinarian is then recognized by his or her peers as a board certified specialist in veterinary dentistry. When your pet needs the care of a veterinary dentist, years of additional training and education will be focused on helping him or her to recover and enjoy the highest quality of life possible.

The easiest way to introduce a pet to home dental cleanings is to start when it is a puppy or kitten. It is important for youngsters to learn to allow you to examine their mouths, both for dental cleanings and to administer medications if need be. Even if your pet is older, however, it can still be trained to accept a home dental cleaning by being patient and consistent with your efforts.
If your pet does not like to have his or her mouth touched, start with very small steps. Start with touching one tooth at first each day, and then very gradually, over a period of days, weeks, or even months, work toward getting your pet to allow you to brush its entire mouth.
If your pet seems afraid of a pet toothbrush, try using a finger brush or even a piece of gauze wrapped over a finger at first.
Make sure you only use toothpaste made specifically for pets. Pet toothpaste tastes good to pets and, most importantly, will not lead to upset stomachs.
If your pet will not safely tolerate your putting your hands in its mouth, don't risk being bitten. Inform your veterinarian and he or she will schedule more frequent dental cleanings as necessary or provide you with other training advice.
Ask your veterinarian for recommendations regarding special dental care diets and treats that will help you and your pet fight plaque buildup in between cleanings.
And remember, the best homecare tip is to start early while pets are young by making home dental cleanings part of your regular daily grooming routine.

Do you think your pet needs a specialist in veterinary dentistry? Talk to your veterinarian or find a VCA board certified veterinary dentist near you.


Broken teeth in pets, especially in dogs, are common, either as a result of chewing on something hard, or from trauma, such as being hit by a car. Broken teeth need to be treated. Just as in people, a broken tooth or one with a fracture exposes the nerves and blood vessels inside the tooth (the pulp) to the outside air and to infection. This can be extremely painful for pets, and leaving a broken tooth in place untreated is not an option because it can lead to chronic infection, abscess formation, and loosening or loss of secondary teeth.

There are two treatment options: extraction, or root canal. Performing a root canal will save what is left of the broken tooth by cleaning out the pulp inside and filling it with an inert material so that it cannot become reinfected'"the same process as in humans. Where root canal is not an option, the tooth should be extracted. In this case, your veterinary team will recommend medications to help reduce pain and maximize healing.

Sometimes called cat cavities, neck lesions, or cervical line lesions, these are painful lesions that most commonly affect the lower premolars in a cat's mouth. Cats with FRLs may salivate excessively, bleed from the gums, and have difficulty eating. Keep in mind that a majority of affected cats, however, do not show any outward signs of having one of these painful lesions. When suspected, radiographs are essential to determine if the lesions have entered the pulp chamber of the tooth. In that case, either root canal therapy or extraction would be required.

This disease is one of the most common mouth problems of dogs and cats. Periodontal disease is an infection caused by the bacteria found in dental plaque. Unfortunately, bacteria can be present on even healthy looking teeth. Gingivitis, which is another term often mentioned in connection with dental disease, is an inflammation of the gum area that causes reddened and swollen gums. It is a common, visual sign of underlying periodontal disease.

Periodontal disease first occurs when plaque and tartar begin to build up on your pet's teeth. In the beginning, plaque might simply appear to be discoloration or staining on the teeth. Without regular dental examinations and cleanings, however, this plaque builds up and turns into tartar, or calculus. This is the visible material you can sometimes see encrusted on the teeth and along the gum line of a pet's mouth. Tartar can damage the bone in your pet's teeth, as well as the bony socket that holds each tooth in place. It can dig into the gums at the base of your pet's teeth and form pockets, where bacteria can become trapped and cause infections.

This condition is very serious in pets because, if left unchecked, it eventually leads to the destruction of each affected tooth's supporting structures, causing pain, infection, and tooth loss. The infection can also result in bacteria entering the bloodstream and damaging other organs or body systems in your pet, such as the kidney, liver, and heart. It can complicate other underlying diseases, such as diabetes or chronic sinusitis.

Dental x-rays are becoming the standard of care for pet dentistry, just as they are in human dentistry. Without radiographs, or x-rays, it is impossible for the veterinary dentist to detect problems below the gum line or within the tooth itself. Radiographs are necessary before deciding on a course of therapy in order to help determine, for example, how extensive a tooth fracture is.

A thorough cleaning removes plaque and tartar both above and below the gum line. This is necessary to prevent periodontal disease and all the associated health problems that we have outlined above. While dental cleanings may seem like an added expense, they are actually a very cost effective investment in your pet's continued good health. Caught early, dental problems are easy to treat. Neglected, they can turn into serious and painful problems.

Imagine what your mouth and teeth would look and feel like if you never brushed them or visited your dentist. That unappealing picture is the same for your pet. Without proper dental care, your pet will most likely suffer from bad breath, inflamed gums, missing, loose, or broken teeth, and all of the pain and discomfort such problems can cause. In addition, veterinary experts have found that dental disease can also lead to systemic health problems in dogs and cats. The good news, however, is that dental disease is easily prevented by following your veterinarian's recommendations regarding dental examinations, home care, and dental cleanings.