February is National Pet Dental Health Month. If you haven’t looked in your pet's mouth lately, now is a great time to take a peek. Are the teeth pearly white and the gums a healthy pink? Or is there an unpleasant odor with brown teeth and red swollen gums? According to the AVMA, 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have some degree of periodontal disease by the age of three. Left untreated, periodontal disease not only puts your pet at risk for pain, infection and tooth loss but it can also cause damage to the heart, kidneys and liver.
Periodontal disease starts with the accumulation of soft plaque on the teeth which then hardens into tartar. Plaque and tartar are not only unsightly, but when accumulated under the gum line, they lead to loss of gingival attachment and damage to underlying bone. Symptoms of severe oral health problems in dogs and cats include:
- bad breath
- reduced appetite
- broken or loose teeth
- bleeding from the mouth
- discolored teeth or teeth covered by tartar
- abnormal chewing
- dropping food from the mouth
- swelling in or around the mouth
- changes in behavior
If your pet is experiencing any of these symptoms, it is time to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for assessment. In general, your pet's teeth should be evaluated at least once a year and if problems such as heavy tartar, gingivitis, or loose teeth are noted, your veterinarian will recommend a sedated exam and cleaning.
So, what can you do at home to keep your pet's teeth and gums healthy? Preventing periodontal disease is not only good for your pet's health, it's good for your wallet. According to VPI pet insurance, the average cost of prevention is only one third the cost of treating dental disease. Home dental care is most successful when performed on a healthy mouth. If your pet's mouth is painful or his gums are bleeding and teeth are covered by heavy tartar, it is best to start with a professional cleaning before instituting home dental care.
The goal of home dental care is the frequent removal of dental plaque and tartar. The most effective and important action you can take is routinely brushing your pet's teeth. Daily brushing is best, just like in people, but even three times a week can be helpful. Regular tooth brushing may reduce the frequency of, or even eliminate the need for, periodic sedated dental cleanings.
Most pets can be trained to accept brushing, but it requires time and patience. It can take days to weeks for a pet to allow brushing. First, get your pet used to having its face and mouth touched. Use a tasty treat on your finger such as tuna juice, peanut butter or meat baby food to reward your pet for allowing you to lift his lips and touch his teeth. Move on to gently wiping the teeth with a gauze pad wrapped around your finger. The next step is introducing a pet toothbrush. Enzymatic pet toothpaste (never use human toothpaste which is not safe to swallow) can be a tasty way to make brushing a more enjoyable experience for your pet.
To brush the teeth, have your dog or cat sit next to you or face you then gently lift the lip to expose the outer surface of the teeth (there is no need to pry the jaw open). Keep your toothbrush at a 45-degree angle and use circular motions to wipe away the plaque. The bristles of the brush will get up under the gum line as well as clean the visible crown of the tooth. Continue brushing the outer surface of the upper and lower teeth for about five seconds per tooth. Remember to reward your pet with a treat so he learns to look forward to brushing!
If your pet is not amenable to brushing, there are some other ways to try to keep teeth clean. Chewing is a great activity for keeping your dog entertained while cleaning his teeth. Choose rubber toys with a rough or bumpy texture. Some rubber toys even have chambers for hiding treats to entice your dog to chew for longer. Rope toys can have a flossing action. Meaty raw knuckle bones are a good option for some dogs but may be too hard for aggressive chewers (never feed cooked bones as they can splinter). There are also many edible dental chews, treats and diets for dogs and cats from which to choose.
Dental wipes, gels, rinses, and water additives can also play a part in keeping your pet’s teeth and gums healthy. Look for the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval. This means the product has been independently tested and found to be effective in decreasing plaque and tartar.
In honor of Pet Dental Health Month, visit your veterinarian for an oral exam and commit to home dental care. Your pets will be healthier, more comfortable, and you could be adding two to five years to their lifespan!
Join Dr. Fitch on Saturday, February 17 at 1:30pm in Shrewsbury as she teaches us why our pet's oral health is as important as our own and offers tips for maintaining healthy teeth and gums.