I regularly ask my clients, "What is the No. 1 disease in dogs and cats?" Fortunately, the answer of late has been gum disease, which is the correct answer. Since February is National Pet Dental Health Month, it is timely to remind ourselves what we can do to treat and prevent gingivitis and periodontal disease.

First, get a whiff of your pet's breath! Imagine how your mouth would feel, taste, look and smell if you never brushed your teeth. Stinky breath is the first sign of a problem. Next, lift the lip and look at the teeth and gums. Are the gums red and are the teeth becoming covered with tartar at the gum line?

The cause of dental disease in pets is basically the same as in people. The difference is that people take care of their own teeth, usually several times daily. Bacteria in the mouth combines with saliva and food debris to form plaque. As layers of plaque accumulate, dental tartar is formed. Over time, more layers of plaque combine and mineralize, resulting in calculus. While plaque is soft and can be brushed away, calculus is hard and must be scraped off or removed with a special instrument called a dental scaler.

Tartar and calculus trap bacteria in and under the gum line, which leads to irritation of the gum tissue (gingivitis) and then periodontal disease. Periodontal disease means sickness of the supporting tissues of the teeth: the ligaments that attach gum to tooth and jaw bone. The American Veterinary Dental Society estimates that 75 percent of cats and dogs have gingivitis by age 4.

There is a pretty good chance your pet is in that 75 percent unless you are practicing home care and having your pet's teeth cleaned by your veterinarian. I also tell my clients that three out of 10 patients have oral pain, and, since dogs and cats still appear to eat normally despite their discomfort (an evolutionary survival trait), it goes unrecognized. Beyond these problems in the mouth, periodontal disease can lead to systemic problems. Bacterial infection can spread from the mouth to the heart valves, kidney and liver. Without regular veterinary exams, much of our pet's dental disease isn't detected until it's really bad.

Dr. Darren Woodson has practiced veterinary medicine in the Farmington area for more than 28 years and has a passion for educating pet owners. If you have a question you would like him to address, email dwoodson@valleyvetpet.com. Please understand Dr. Woodson will choose the questions that are most relevant to our readers.