Although your pet’s dental health is as important as your own, you might not spend much time thinking about it. Let’s face it, chances that “clean my pet’s teeth” topped your list of New Year’s resolutions this year (or even made it onto the list at all) are low.
Unfortunately, poor dental health can lead to all sorts of health problems in our pets, so proper dental hygiene is key.
Feeling a twinge guilty about not having a stash of pet toothpaste and toothbrushes on hand? No need to worry! It’s never too late to start creating good habits, and here’s what you can do right now to take good care of your pet’s teeth.
What Does a Healthy Pet Mouth Look Like?
Let’s start by determining what a healthy pet’s mouth should look like. Healthy dog gums should be pink in color (cat gums, too). Pets with healthy mouths also have white teeth and no bad breath.
Dental problems in pets include oral abscesses (pockets of infection), broken teeth and fractured jaws. The most common dental problem in pets is periodontal disease (PD), with nearly 80 percent of dogs and cats having some level of PD by 3 years old.
PD occurs when bacteria in the mouth creates plaque, which hardens into tartar if not removed quickly. When tartar travels below the gumline, infection and inflammation occur, which weakens the structures supporting the teeth (e.g., gums, bones). PD is irreversible and ranges from mild to severe.
Some pets have a high risk of developing PD. For example, cats who eat canned food have a higher risk because the food’s softness doesn’t provide chewing action that removes plaque. Small breed dogs’ teeth tend to crowd the gumline, leaving more room for tartar to seep through.
A pet with poor dental health will have some, if not all, of these symptoms:
- Bad breath
- Discolored teeth
- Bleeding, swollen gums
- Broken, loose or missing teeth
- Unwillingness or inability to eat
As previously mentioned, poor dental health can impact your pet’s entire body. This is because harmful bacteria in the mouth can travel through the bloodstream and affect other organs. The liver and kidneys are particularly susceptible because they filter out toxins from the blood, and the heart can also be affected. Other health problems associated with poor dental health are diabetes, bone infections and even some cancers.
How to Make Your Pet’s Dental Health a Priority
Poor dental health is a serious health issue. Plus, because PD is irreversible, it’s important to prevent it before it starts. If you’ve been lax about your pet’s oral care, start now to establish good habits to improve your pet’s dental health.
Here are some good habits to start:
Brush Your Pet’s Teeth
By far, brushing your dog or cat’s teeth is the best thing you can do right now to improve your pet’s dental health. Daily brushing is ideal, but even a few times a week will work. Purchase pet-safe toothpaste and toothbrushes from your veterinarian or a pet food store. Do NOT use human toothpaste! Human toothpaste contains fluoride, which is toxic to pets.
Pets need time to acclimate to tooth brushing. Here’s how to brush your dog’s teeth:
- Place a dab of toothpaste on your finger and let your dog lick it off to get used to the taste.
- Without toothpaste, spend at least a few days gently running your finger along the teeth and gumline. After a few days, do the same with the toothbrush.
- When your dog is ready, brush their teeth using smooth and gentle circular motions. Move from the front teeth to the back teeth, brushing the outside and inside of each tooth.
Follow these same steps if you want to learn how to brush your cat’s teeth. For cats, consider doing the tooth brushing during a relaxing lap time or right before play time.
Fortunately, brushing your pet’s teeth doesn’t take long. To make the process more fun, offer an immediate reward, such as a dental treat or tummy rub, afterwards.
Purchase Dental Treats and Chew Toys
Some pets, no matter what you do, do not like getting their teeth brushed. For these pets, dental treats and chew toys are good alternatives. Dental treats, such as dental sticks and biscuit-like treats, break up and remove plaque. Chew toys also help remove plaque, but can crack a pet’s teeth if they’re too hard. Pick a chew toy that has some softness and flexibility.
Switch to a Dental Diet
Dental diets are specially formulated to reduce plaque and tartar buildup. They are more expensive than regular commercial diets but can be beneficial for pets with a high risk of developing PD. Talk with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet.
Consider Other Dental Care Products
Many other dental care products are available, including water additives, oral gels, oral sprays and oral wipes. If you are considering any of these products, consult with your veterinarian to determine whether they’re appropriate for your pet.
Schedule a Veterinary Dental Checkup
Last but certainly not least, schedule your pet for an annual dental checkup. This checkup involves a thorough look into your pet’s dental health. Your veterinarian will look for signs of dental disease, including unhealthy-looking gums and tartar buildup. Your veterinarian might also want to take dental x-rays, which would require sedation.
Just like we have regular professional dental cleanings, our pets need them too. Pets should have an annual veterinary dental cleaning. This cleaning requires anesthesia so that the veterinarian can safely clean the teeth and gums and perform other dental procedures that might be necessary, such as tooth removal.
Good dental health in pets is important for their overall health and now is as good a time as ever to improve your pet’s dental health. Consult with your veterinarian about the best way to keep your pet’s mouth as clean and healthy as possible.
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JoAnna Pendergrass is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer in Atlanta, GA. After graduating from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine with her veterinary degree, JoAnna completed a two-year research fellowship in neuroscience at Emory University. During this fellowship, she learned that she could make a career out of combining her loves of science and writing. As a medical writer, JoAnna is passionate about providing pet parents with clear, concise, and engaging information about pet care. Through her writing, she strives not only to educate pet parents, but also empower them to make good health decisions for their pets. JoAnna is a member of the American Medical Writers Association and Dog Writers Association of America.