Other common signs of dental disease include decreased appetite, resistance to hard foods, chewing only on one side of their mouth, drooling, pawing at the face and decreased willingness to spend time with family members.
"An animal that has loose teeth, abscessed teeth, infected gums – they're going to have pain in their mouth and that's going to significantly affect their quality of life," says Woodsworth. "On average, animals that have healthy mouths live one to two years longer than animals with diseased mouths."
An animal with serious dental disease is at an increased risk for disease in other organs of the body including the heart, liver, kidneys and lungs. This spread of disease happens when small breaks in the gum tissue occur during chewing or playing — allowing oral bacteria to enter the bloodstream and travel to other areas.
So how can you prevent your pet from becoming a victim of dental disease? Simply brushing a dog's, cat's or ferret's teeth can significantly reduce the risk of severe periodontal disease.
"Brushing every day provides about a 70 per cent reduction in dental disease," says Woodsworth. "Brushing targets plaque — a bacterial biofilm that sticks to the teeth every time we eat — causing inflammation around the gumline."
This inflammation can lead to a myriad of problems including periodontal disease (the breakdown of the attachment between the tooth and the bone in the jaw) and recession of the gum line. Plaque also functions as glue to which tartar, a buildup of calcified minerals, is able to stick.
Brushing your pet's teeth is a fairly simple procedure: you just need to do a couple of good strokes along the gum line on the outer surface of each tooth. Brushing the inner surface isn't common practice as animals don't like it very much. The tongue also provides fair protection from plaque buildup on the inner tooth surface.
"We know that plaque builds up within six to eight hours of brushing, so brushing twice a day would be most effective. However, because owners' lives are busy, the general recommendation is to brush once daily," says Woodsworth.
You can either purchase a pet toothbrush with soft bristles or use one designed for babies or toddlers if your pet's mouth is large enough. Woodsworth also recommends orthodontic brushes given to kids with braces as a handy tool for cleaning your pet's teeth.
"But we always want to use a pet-specific toothpaste, one that doesn't have any foaming agents or fluoride in it, which can be harmful to the pet. You want to find something that's veterinary specific and that's going to be appealing to your pet in terms of flavour."
To prevent your cat or dog from running and hiding every time your hold a toothbrush, all pets should be slowly introduced to tooth brushing – a process that can take several weeks.
The first step is to leave the toothbrush and toothpaste out so that your animal will perceive them as normal household items. Next, encourage them to lick some toothpaste off your finger. Eventually you can get them used to you rubbing your finger against their teeth, and the final step is actual brushing.
Woodsworth says it's beneficial to introduce teeth brushing to pets when they're young so they get used to the process. However, when pets are four to six months old and their baby teeth are falling out, they may not be agreeable because their teeth are falling out and their gums are tender.
"You don't want your animal to associate teeth brushing with pain, because that'll make them not want to do it anymore."
As well, take a short break from brushing if your pet has a cut or injury in its mouth or has just undergone a dental procedure.
"This also applies to animals that have pre-existing bad dental disease. You don't want to start brushing an animal's teeth when they've already got nasty periodontal disease and lots of pain in their mouth."
If your pet refuses to have its teeth brushed, there are a variety of foods, treats and oral rinses you can use to help clean teeth. The Veterinary Oral Health Council has put together a list of approved products based on scientific evidence that the product actually works.
"Not all products are created equal," warns Woodsworth, adding that pet owners should ask their veterinarians for advice before buying these products.
But if your pet already has severe dental disease, don't delay — see a veterinarian and have a teeth cleaning performed immediately. The veterinarian will place your pet under general anesthetic so that full-mouth X-rays can be taken and a teeth cleaning can be performed. Your veterinarian will also take care of any extractions or other surgical procedures.
"That's the only thing that's going to provide the best care possible for existing dental disease."
Melissa Cavanagh of Winnipeg, Man., is a second-year veterinary student and was the WCVM's research communications intern for the summer of 2013.