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Owners can take a proactive approach regarding dental care – many of the more serious side effects of dental disease are avoidable through good maintenance care.  It is estimated up to 80% of pets have some form of oral disease, and it is up to owners to provide pets with good dental care, both professionally and at home.

Why is it important?

Dental care of dogs and cats is one of the most commonly overlooked areas of pet health care.  Recent studies have shown that approximately 2/3 of pet owners do not provide the dental care that is recommended as essential by veterinarians.  More alarming, the American Veterinary Dental Society reports that 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats show signs of oral disease.

Dental Health for Pets

Dental disease doesn’t just affect the mouth – it can lead to more serious health problems including heart, lung, and kidney disease, as well as severe bacterial infection.  It is important to take steps at home and partner with your veterinarian to keep doggie breath from turning into a life threatening illness.

Dental Disease in Pets

There are many stages of dental disease, and fortunately an owner can do much to prevent the serious signs.  Some of the stages can even be reversed with proper care.  There are several stages in the process of dental disease –

Plaque – Dogs rarely get cavities, but are much more prone to plaque build up and gum disease.  Food particles and bacteria collect along the gum line to form plaque.  Routine home care and providing proper chewing items can remove this plaque.

Tartar – If plaque is not removed, minerals in the saliva combine with plaque to  form tartar, or calculus, which adheres strongly to the teeth.  Plaque starts to mineralize into tartar three to five days after it forms, and when not removed, can be irritating to the gums.  This inflammation caused by tartar is called gingivitis, and can be seen as the reddening and swelling of the gums adjacent to the teeth.  At this point it is necessary to remove the tartar with a professional instrument called a scaler – regular brushing just won’t do.  Tartar and the subsequent gingivitis are also the cause of bad breath!

Periodontal Disease – If the tartar is not removed, it builds up on the teeth and even up under the gum line.  Under the gums, it separates the gums from the teeth to form pockets of bacterial growth.  At this point in the disease process, the damage is irreversible and is called periodontal disease.  It can be very painful and lead to loose teeth, abscesses, and bone loss or infection.  If bacterial growth continues unchecked, the bacteria may enter the bloodstream.  This can cause infection of the heart valves (endocarditis), liver, and kidneys.  This stage of the disease requires veterinary intervention – although signs of the disease can’t be reversed, progression can be slowed or stopped.

What Steps Can an Owner Take to Start a Good Dental Care Program?

A good dental care program includes:

  • Daily home dental care
  • Regular visits to your veterinarian, which include an oral exam
  • Veterinary dental cleaning as advised
  • Daily Home Dental Care

Home dental care is an important first step – with periodontal disease, prevention is key!  As an owner, home oral care includes routine examination of your dog’s mouth, brushing, and providing plenty of appropriate chew things. 

Home oral exam – As you care for your pet’s mouth, look for warning signs of gum disease such as bad breath, red and swollen gums, brown tartar along the gum line, and pain or bleeding when you touch the gums or mouth.  You should also check for discolored, fractured or missing teeth.  Any bumps or masses in the mouth should be checked by your veterinarian.

Daily brushing – Remember, plaque hardens into tartar within 3-5 days.  This means that although you may mean well, if you only brush once a week, tartar has already started to permanently adhere to the teeth.  Regular brushing is very important in preventing the progression of oral disease!

Mechanical Removal of Plaque – Studies show that crunchy kibble is slightly better than canned food at keeping plaque from accumulating on teeth.  It is also important to provide plenty of healthy chews and treats that help scrape plaque off a dog’s teeth – most will willingly chew on appropriate items.  This mechanical chewing action helps clean their teeth like brushing.  Appropriate chewing items include:

  •  Bully sticks
  • Raw, frozen bones
  • Nylabones
  • Hard, rubber chew toys
  • Large packaged bones

Start early – Getting a young puppy or kitten used to the feeling of brushing their teeth when they are little makes it easier later on.  Have an older dog or cat that has never had their teeth brushed before?  Your pet is never too old to start!  He may require a professional dental cleaning to rid himself of years of tartar build up, but regular at home care can still be a huge benefit.  In fact, the older your pet is, the more important it is to keep plaque and tartar from accumulating.   Studies show that in prolonged dental disease, bacteria from the mouth can move systemically into vital organs. 

How to Brush Your Pet's Teeth

Brushing your pet’s teeth should not be a chore for you or your pet – take the time to make teeth brushing a positive experience, and your pet will actually look forward to brushing sessions.

It is important to use a toothpaste specially designed for pets – the fluoride and foaming agents in human toothpaste can be harmful if swallowed.  Pet toothpaste contains special ingredients such as clorhexidine, hexametaphosphate, and enzymes that help dissolve plaque before it can harden into tartar. 

The real benefit of toothbrushing comes from the mechanical action of the brush scraping off the tartar from the teeth.  Various brushes and pads are available, and depending on the health of your dog’s gums, size of your dog’s mouth, and how cooperative your dog is, an owner can decide which to use. 

Use a toothbrush specially designed for pets – Owners may choose to use a finger toothbrush, which may be more easily accepted by a pet in the beginning.  Pet toothbrushes are also smaller and softer than a human toothbrush, and may be more acceptable to a pet. 

Where to Begin

1. Get your dog used to the taste of the toothpaste – using a poultry or sweet tasting toothpaste might get them interested.  Remember, no people toothpaste!  Let your pet lick a tiny bit off your finger so he realizes toothpaste = treat!

2. Get your pet comfortable with having something placed in his mouth – since he already likes the toothpaste, put a small amount on your finger and gently rub on some of the easy to reach front teeth. 

3. After they are used to the toothpaste and having something in their mouth, get them used to the feeling of the toothbrush.  Sometimes the bristles can feel funny!  Apply some of the toothpaste to the brush, letting them lick it off to get the feel of the bristles.

4. Now that your pet is accustomed to each step, it’s time to combine them all – start brushing!  Start slowly, and just try a few teeth at a time.  Work your way up to brushing their entire mouth.

How Often?

The more, the better!  Always aim for daily dental care – once you make it a habit, it just becomes part of your routine.  If you cannot brush daily, brushing every other day will still remove plaque before it hardens into calculus.  Brushing less than every few days can still help, but does allows plaque to harden into immovable calculus, which requires a professional cleaning.

Won’t Hold Still? 

Other dental health items –

  • Food – Crunchy kibble and raw meaty bones are best at helping decrease plaque build up
  • Bones and Chew Toys – Mechanical removal of plaque can be accomplished by providing appropriate chew toys.
  • Water Additives – There are some liquids you can add to a pet’s drinking water which helps keep the plaque from binding to the pet’s teeth.

Veterinary Care

Regular visits to your veterinarian are important to monitor overall health, including dental health.  During a normal exam, a vet will:

  • Examine the animal’s face and head for asymmetry, swelling, or discharge.
  • Examine the outside surfaces of teeth and gums
  • Open mouth to examine inner surfaces of teeth and gums, plus the tongue, palates, and tonsils
  • Palpate and assess the size, shape, and consistency of the salivary glands and lymph nodes in the neck

If signs of disease are present, your vet may recommend a professional dental cleaning.  This would include:

  • Anesthesia – a good cleaning is impossible on a moving target!
  • X-Rays – These help assesses the health of all the teeth and bones in the mouth
  • Flushing the mouth with a solution to kill bacteria
  • Cleaning the teeth with ultrasonic scalers.  Calculus is removed from above and below the gum line – this is very important and can only be done under anesthesia!
  • Polishing the teeth to remove microscopic scratches
  • Removal of any broken or fractured teeth

The Sky’s the Limit

Regular dental care is becoming more routine and sophisticated.  Pets can have the same procedures as people: regular cleanings, crowns and even root canals.  However, owners can start at home, and there are many products available to help owners provide the best possible oral care for their pets.  It will ultimately save owners money and help pets live longer, healthier lives if their oral health care is managed and maintained from the start. 

Our pets are living much longer now than in the past – with the use of preventative medicine such as regular vaccinations and heartworm protection, pets are living long enough to see other diseases develop.  Many veterinarians are now seeing patients – young and old – whose most severe medical problem is dental disease.