Practicing (and Perfecting) Good Oral Care
According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, more than 80% of dogs and 70% of cats develop periodontal disease by the time they turn three. This can lead to gum irritation, bleeding, oral pain, bone infections, tooth loss — and worse. In advanced cases, bacteria and toxins can enter the bloodstream and damage your pet’s organs, including the kidneys, heart, and liver. Fortunately, you can learn how to provide good oral care for your pet, preferably before trouble sets in.
Chronic bad breath in dogs and cats is frequently a sign of a bacterial infection of the gums and other tissues around the teeth (the periodontium). It begins when bacteria adhere to the teeth in a film called plaque. When the bacteria combine with the calcium in your pet’s saliva, tartar (also called calculus) forms. Tartar’s rough surface allows more plaque to accumulate, which can cause gingivitis — an inflammation of the gum (gingiva) that can cause bleeding and pain. If plaque and tartar continue to spread, the area around the root of the tooth can get infected. Eventually, this destroys the tissue around the tooth, the bone erodes, and the tooth loosens.
While this can be very painful and unpleasant for your pet, it’s not fatal unless the bacteria enter the bloodstream and affect your pet’s organs. But bad breath can also indicate kidney disease, liver disease, and other potentially deadly conditions, so take halitosis seriously, and get your pet to the vet to determine the cause.
Start before your pet has a mouthful of problems
Ideally, dental checkups for your pet should begin early, when they still have their baby teeth so your vet can see whether your puppy or kitten’s mouth is developing normally. But if your mature pet hasn’t had professional or at-home dental care, you’re not alone. A study by the American Animal Hospital Association showed that approximately two-thirds of dog and cat parents don’t provide the dental care veterinarians consider essential. What IS essential is to begin oral care for your pet before serious problems set in. A checkup for the mature pet may reveal plaque, tartar, periodontal disease, growths, and other oral health issues, many of which can be successfully treated.
Recognizing signs of trouble
Examine your pet’s mouth and teeth between visits to the vet. If you spot any of the following symptoms, call your vet:
- Brownish teeth
- Swollen, red, or bleeding gums
- Persistent bad breath
- Loose or missing teeth
- Pus between the gums and teeth
- Broken teeth
- Any unusual growth
- Loss of appetite or dropping food while eating
- Reluctance to eat, play with chew toys, or drink cold water
A plaque removal operation
While some dogs or cats tolerate most ingredients with no problem, there are common pet food ingredients that have been found to pose allergy and/or intolerance issues in many pets. These include:
If your pet does have a buildup of tartar, your vet will recommend a cleaning. While standard dental exams can be done without anesthesia, cleanings cannot, so the preparation for a dental cleaning is similar to that for surgery.
Before administering anesthesia, your vet will examine your pet to make sure he or she is healthy enough to undergo it. This may involve blood work and other medical tests. During anesthesia, your pet’s vital signs will be monitored while the teeth are scaled. Scaling removes plaque and calculus, but can leave microscopic scratches that can damage the tooth’s surface and lead to further disease, so your vet will also polish your pet’s teeth. Some vets will finish the treatment with a fluoride treatment to fight plaque, and a barrier sealant, which can help strengthen and desensitize teeth.
Keep it clean
If you have a young pet with unblemished teeth, or an older pet that has had a recent teeth cleaning, keep those pearly whites in good condition by brushing them every day.
How to brush a dog’s teeth
If your dog is a tolerant type, you may want to start with a toothbrush specially designed for pets or a very soft human toothbrush, and toothpaste specially formulated for dogs. Human toothpaste or baking soda can cause problems in pets. Keep a bowl of warm water handy for wetting the brush. Starting on one side, gently pull the upper lip back. Hold the bristles of the toothbrush at a 45º angle to the tooth and gently scrub the gum line in a circular motion. Repeat this process for the lower teeth, and then for the other side. For the insides of the teeth, place your hand over your dog’s muzzle, gently squeeze and push his lips on one side, pull his head back so his mouth opens, and brush the inside of the teeth on the opposite side.
If your dog is more skittish, start by dipping a finger into beef bouillon or chicken stock and gently massaging his gums. When your dog tolerates this, do the same thing with gauze over your finger. When your dog is used to this, switch to a toothbrush. If your dog is very reluctant, wrap him in a towel or blanket, with only his head protruding.
How to brush a cat’s teeth
Important Cat Stat
The American Veterinary Dental Society estimates that more than 70 percent of cats over the age of five suffer from one or more oral resorptive lesions. This is a very painful condition that begins at the root of the tooth, continues inside the tooth, and causes swollen gums, holes in the tooth, and, eventually, the tooth’s collapse and dissolution. Cats hide their pain well, and may suffer without your knowing. This makes at-home care and annual exams critically important.
Start getting your cat used to brushing gradually, and be patient. You may not be able to perform a real brushing for at least a month, but your efforts will pay off.
Stroke your cat’s cheeks several times a day. Buy toothpaste especially for cats and put a bit on a treat every day for several days until your cat accepts it. (Like dogs, you should never use human toothpaste or baking soda with your cat.) Next, put some of this cat toothpaste on a special cat toothbrush, or a super-soft, small, human toothbrush, and let your cat lick it off several days in a row. When you think she’s ready, place the toothbrush in her mouth and leave it there for a few seconds, increasing the length of time each day for several days. When your cat is comfortable with this, brush one tooth slowly, starting at the gum line. Keep a bowl of warm water handy to wet the brush. Gradually cover several teeth, then gently pull the lips back and brush the back teeth. Eventually, brush all the teeth. If your cat won’t let you brush for that length of time, focus on the outside of the molars in the back. You can also wrap her in a towel or blanket with only her head protruding.
Remember to praise your pet and offer treats as a reward. Try to avoid getting tense. If your pet is frustrating your efforts, try again the next day.
Keep your pet smiling
The mouth of a dog or cat is marvelously multi-functional. It enables your pet to eat, drink, communicate, play, groom, and carry objects. Making sure it’s in good shape is an important part of your pet’s health and well-being.