Top 5 Tooth Care Tips
Dental care for cats and dogs is about much more than sweet breath. It helps promote whole-body health.
Let’s face it: No matter how much you adore your pup, his doggie breath can be downright gross at times. But the consequences of poor dental health—for cats and dogs alike—go way beyond bad breath. In fact, bad breath can be a signal that your pet is suffering from gum disease, referred to as periodontal disease, which can lead to serious health concerns ranging from tooth loss to organ failure.
With a majority of adult pets suffering from some degree of dental tartar, which can cause periodontal disease, keeping up your pet’s oral hygiene isn’t a luxury. It’s a vital piece of your cat’s or dog’s healthcare routine. When Fluffy and Fido receive good dental care, they undoubtedly live longer and better lives. Here’s how to keep your pet’s mouth clean so you can keep your cat or dog healthy from tooth to tail.
#1 - Visit Your Veterinarian for Teeth Cleaning
Dental care for dogs and cats should start at your veterinarian’s office. Pets need to be regularly evaluated for the presence of dental tartar and disease and be treated if necessary. The fact is, 80% of dogs and 70% of cats over the age of 3 years suffer from significant oral disease that requires treatment. Such treatment might even include a tooth or multiple teeth being pulled in order to stop infection and prevent additional health problems.
But your cat’s or dog’s teeth don’t need to get to this point. When your pets visit the veterinarian for their annual or six-month examination, the doctor will check their teeth. He or she will be on the lookout for reddened gums and yellow-brown tartar, also called dental calculus, on the teeth. The doctor also may recommend that your pets get dental X-rays to check whether there are hidden signs of disease below the gum line and in the bones. If there is any evidence of dental disease, the veterinarian will likely recommend a dental cleaning for your pet.
Today’s pet anesthesia is extremely safe and, most often, the health threats from avoiding dental cleanings far outweigh the threat of anesthesia complications.
Just like in human medicine, this involves cleaning your pet’s teeth with a scaler. Unlike people, cats and dogs don’t just lay still for their dentist. Therefore, dental cleanings are performed while pets are under general anesthesia. Today’s pet anesthesia is extremely safe and, most often, the health threats from avoiding dental cleanings far outweigh the threat of anesthesia complications.
On average, dogs and cats benefit from dental cleaning once a year starting at the age of 3, but every pet needs his or her own individual dental program. Some cats and dogs might need less frequent cleanings, others more. Your veterinarian will work with you to decide what’s best for your cat or dog.
#2 - Brush Your Pet’s Teeth Every Day
Another important component to staving off dental disease is at-home care. While it’s critical to follow your veterinarian’s recommendations for getting your pet’s teeth cleaned in the clinic, the best thing you can do to at home to promote good oral hygiene is to brush your pet’s teeth—daily. Doing it every few days or once a week just isn’t enough, because the bacteria that cause dental disease can recolonize on the tooth surface in a period of 24 to 36 hours. Daily brushing may sound daunting, but it’s completely doable, even on finicky cats.
Start with the basic tools: a soft-bristled toothbrush or a finger brush and toothpaste. Be sure to use toothpaste specially formulated for pets, since the fluoride and other active ingredients in people’s toothpaste is designed to be spit out and can be toxic to cats and dogs when swallowed.
Another note about toothpaste: Most pet paste should be thought of mainly as a flavoring agent. Its pet-friendly taste (often chicken-flavored) provides the valuable service of making it easier for you to get the toothbrush into your pet’s mouth.
The mechanical action of the toothbrush is the main factor in the plaque-removing process. However, if your pet has advanced periodontal disease, your veterinarian may recommend toothpaste that contains chlorhexidine to help further control plaque bacteria. In short, ask your veterinarian which dental cleaning products he or she recommends for your pet.
Next, make sure you know how to brush your pet’s teeth. Ask your veterinarian for a demonstration. Here’s a narration of what the doctor will show you: Place a small amount of toothpaste on your finger and let your pet sniff and lick it. If there’s positive interest in the flavor of the toothpaste, use it. If your pet isn’t interested in the toothpaste, it’s OK to brush the teeth without it.
Hold the toothbrush at a 45º angle to the tooth surface with the bristles pointing toward the gums. This allows you to clean underneath the gums. Work the toothbrush in a circular motion, concentrating on the outside surfaces of the teeth—especially the canine teeth and upper premolars. Go slowly, aiming to spend a total of 30 seconds on each side of the mouth.
And be patient. If you haven’t brushed your pet’s teeth before, you may need to start by simply getting your cat or dog used to having the mouth touched. Then you can work up to longer brushing sessions. While every pet eventually can be acclimated to enjoying (or at least not resisting) having its teeth brushed, some pets are more resistant than others.
If your pet is too difficult to handle or becomes aggressive during tooth brushing, you may need to focus on the next two items—in addition to getting your pet regular dental cleanings at your veterinary office—to keep the teeth clean. These items aren’t a substitute for brushing, but they will help.
#3 - Feed Your Pet a Special Dental Diet
There are several commercial diets that have been shown to improve your pet’s periodontal health compared to regular dry food diets. These dental foods work in one of two ways, either by using an extra-crunchy kibble to provide better mechanical cleansing of the teeth or by coating the food with polyphosphate, which works by binding minerals in your pet’s saliva to make them unavailable for the development of tartar. Yet another type of dental diet combines both methods. Ask your veterinarian to recommend the one that’s right for your pet.
#4 - Offer Appropriate Chew Treats
Some treats are designed to help keep your cat’s or dog’s teeth clean. Rawhide treats and other consumable items are readily available, and they’re an effective way to control and remove plaque and tartar from your dog’s teeth. Rawhide is highly digestible and, contrary to conventional wisdom, has not been commonly observed to cause digestive problems. It has also been shown that coating rawhide treats with calcium-sequestering substances, like sodium hexamethaphosphate, can further enhance plaque and tartar reduction.
Just as some treats are effective in the fight against periodontal disease, others are to be avoided. Products such as nylon bones, cow hooves, and real bones are too hard for your dog’s teeth and often are associated with slab fracture of the carnassial teeth in dogs. And as much as your pooch may love playing catch with a tennis ball, the yellow spheres are notorious for causing mechanical wearing of the tooth surface. If possible, offer your dog nonabrasive balls or toys.
#5 - Look for the VOHC Seal
Finally, look for products that carry the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal. This marker gives you an objective way to recognize products that meet pre-set standards of effectiveness when it comes to controlling plaque and tartar in dogs and cats. The VOHC doesn’t actually test products itself; rather, companies submit a detailed report of the testing that has been performed using VOHC protocols and standards. If, after a detailed review, the product meets the VOHC’s standards, it’s awarded the VOHC seal. While products that lack the VOHC seal certainly may work, you can be confident that products that have earned the seal are truly effective.
Keeping your cat’s or dog’s teeth clean is relatively easy. Your veterinary healthcare team will do its part by performing regular oral examinations and recommending dental cleanings as needed. As for you, about one minute of tooth brushing a day and the right food and treats will keep your pet’s pearly whites a shining example of health—so the rest of his or her body will be too.
SMILE: YOU CAN SPOT DENTAL DISEASE
Keeping a watchful eye on your pet’s teeth will help you catch problems early. The following are the most common signs of oral disease:
- Yellow-brown tartar
- Bleeding gums
- Red, inflamed gums
- Bad breath
- Difficulty chewing
- Change in eating habits
- Pawing at the mouth