Several veterinary associations sponsor Pet Dental Health Month every February to raise awareness of the importance of oral health. Good dental hygiene is just as important for pets as it is for humans. However, it is one of the most disregarded areas in pet health despite being the number one diagnosed problem in dogs and cats. It is often referred to as “the silent killer” and has been linked to numerous problems including heart, lung and kidney disease.
Periodontal disease is a progressive disease that starts when food particles and bacteria attach to the teeth and along the gum line and form a bacterial film called plaque. Plaque becomes calcified by the saliva, which forms a hard, rough substance called tartar or calculus, which in turn leads to further plaque build up. Initially, plaque is soft, so brushing or chewing hard food and toys can dislodge it. If not removed, plaque will eventually lead to gingivitis and cause the gums to become red and swollen and to bleed easily. Calculus eventually builds up under the gum and separates it from the teeth and, at this point, professional cleaning is needed to remove it. If the plaque and tartar buildup continues unchecked, infection will develop. In its final stages, the tissues surrounding the tooth are destroyed, the bony socket anchoring the tooth erodes and the tooth becomes loose. This is a painful process, but can be prevented with proper dental care.
There are a number of products that help to reduce plaque and tartar build up, but daily brushing is ideal and one of the best preventative measures you can take. It is best to use a pet dental toothpaste containing enzymes that help soften the plaque, thus facilitating its removal. You can use a tooth brush with soft bristles, a finger brush or even wrap your finger in gauze. When brushing, be careful to not irritate the gums, so you want to rub away from the gums. If you are using a gauze, you can use a small circular motion. Since the most tartar builds up on the tooth surfaces that touch the cheek, concentrate there.
Not all pets will be cooperative at first with brushing. You would want to acclimate your pet gradually. You can start by applying a small amount of tooth paste to your finger and quickly/gently rub along the top teeth and gum line. Ideally, you should habituate puppies and kittens when they are young, so that it isn’t a stressful intervention when they are older. The AVMA has put together a great video to show you how to brush your pet’s teeth and address the issue of acclimation.
You can combine a number of preventative methods to further reduce plaque and tartar build up. There are water additives or diets that help clean teeth as your pet chews. The VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council) has put together an extensive list of products that have been shown to reduce plaque and tartar. Look for the VOHC seal on the product’s package.
You can give chew toys that help massage your pet’s gums and keep their teeth clean. However, pets who are prone to swallowing large pieces of chew toys should be monitored during their use, to avoid an obstruction or choking. In addition, you will want to avoid chew toys that are too hard and that can possibly damage the teeth. Many commercial chew toys are far too hard and can break the chewing teeth. There are two guidelines recommend by Dr. Brook Niemiec, a veterinary dental specialist:
- If you cannot make an indentation in it with a fingernail, the treat or toy is too hard.
- If it would hurt to hit yourself in the knee with it, the treat or toy is too hard.
An added benefit of chew toys is their ability to reduce your dog’s stress level, eliminate boredom, and give pets an outlet for their desire to chew.
You should still have your pet’s teeth checked by a veterinarian. Dental work done under anesthesia has the advantage that a very thorough examination of the mouth can be done.
Dr Christina Nosotti