What you need to know about dental health care for your pet

Don't forget to take care of your dog and cat's teeth too

As parents, we are diligent about starting preventative dental care for our children early, helping them to develop good oral hygiene habits from a young age. Yet, many families have four-legged members, who are as dependent on the adults in the household to provide them with good dental care. As with children, the best habits begin when your dog is just a pup to reinforce good habits and develop tolerance to oral hygiene practices.

Veterinarians encourage brushing pets’ teeth daily. Dr. Kristin Rennie from Dover Veterinary Hospital said that it can be started as kittens and puppies with a finger and a gauze pad.

Jenna Watson, Certified Veterinary Technician and veterinary practice manager at Derry Animal Hospital, said studies show it can take up to 72 hours for plaque to turn into tartar, so even brushing every other day can significantly decrease tartar buildup. “However, the recommendation is to brush daily or following every meal. There are veterinary dental chews and an oral rinse available that can help decrease bacterial count in the mouth.”

For moderate- and high-risk breeds, Watson said, it’s recommended you feed them prescription dental health diets, which have been proven to decrease tartar with the food alone. The diet combined with the teeth brushing makes a huge difference.

As in the case with people, the upside of maintaining good dental hygiene with a pet is the possibility of avoiding costly dental procedures. If you’ve wondered why it is so expensive, consider that a pet has to be placed under anesthesia for simple processes like dental X-rays and cleanings, unlike their human counterparts. While some pet owners do have insurance for their furry friends, many have to pay an additional premium to include dental care and the majority of owners do not have pet insurance at all.

Dr. Aimee Shields of Riverbend Veterinary Clinic in Plainfield recommends that pet owners check out “The Dental Care Series” on veterinarypartner.com. The series, which was written by Jan Bellows, D.V.M., DipAVDC, outlines the various issues related to dental care for cats and dogs, and provides helpful guides for everything from canine tooth brushing to what to expect when your pet needs professional dental care. There’s even a section regarding ferret dentistry, which is surprisingly similar to that of dogs and cats.

For those who have not considered what happens to a pet’s teeth when they aren’t brushed regularly, Bellows asks us to think about what might happen to our own teeth if we stopped brushing them, even if we ate hard food all of the time as most dogs do. While your dog might not get cavities, periodontal disease can develop. Watson said most owners don’t brush their teeth due to time constraints or perhaps their dog just won’t tolerate it – all the more reason to start at a young age. She recommends that puppy owners start playing with their puppy’s mouth, familiarizing them with the feel and brushing often. But even if you’ve never brushed your pet’s teeth, it is not too late to begin. Who says you can’t teach an old dog (owner) new tricks?

Not sure where to start? Pet supply stores have a host of options, including long-handled angled toothbrushes, many with dual brushes of varying sizes with gentle bristles made especially for dogs. There are also toothbrushes that fit over the tip of one’s finger, ideally made for smaller breeds, although your own dog may have a preference for one type of brush over another.

According to Bellows, the best pet toothpastes are those that contain enzymes to help control plaque, and not those that that include materials like baking soda, detergents or salt that can be found in the type of toothpaste made specifically for humans.

The trick, of course, is getting that toothbrush with the correct type of toothpaste into your dog’s mouth and brushing its teeth. Bellows says if you if you approach the procedure gently and introduce it slowly using a piece of gauze or washcloth to wipe the teeth in the same way that you’ll soon use the toothbrush, it will help to familiarize your dog with the process and within a couple of weeks you’ll be able to move on to the real deal.

Poor dental hygiene can lead to a number of issues from minor to severe bad breath and periodontal issues that can result in the loss of teeth. Rennie said owners should be looking in and at their pets’ mouths monthly to check for tartar, halitosis or growths. When a pet owner is not familiar with his or her animal’s gums and teeth, some potential concerns can escape their notice that may lead to more serious problems, such as undiagnosed ulcerations or masses, as well as tooth fractures. While these problems can range in significance and expense to resolve, it’s difficult to treat or ward off more intensive and costly issues when an owner isn’t aware it exists.

Rennie said pet owners generally say, “But he isn’t acting painful or he’s eating fine,” but dogs and cats mask their pain much better than we do.

“Unfortunately, genetics play a big role in dental disease and oral health,” said Watson. “There really isn’t anything specific to avoid that causes hygiene issues – but I cannot emphasize enough – brush teeth!”

Pamme Boutselis is a MarCom consultant and a freelance writer. The mom of four grown kids, she now deals with the challenges of raising two insubordinate dachshunds. Follow her on Twitter @pammeb.

Categories: Dental & Oral Health, Pets and kids