5 Ways to Keep Your Pet's Teeth and Gums Healthy for Life

February is Dental Health Month, which means it's time to lavish some attention on your pet's teeth. It's important to take proper care of canine and feline teeth, because if left untreated, plaque and tartar buildup can progress to painful periodontal disease. The bacteria from periodontal disease can spread to other organs and cause illnesses. More than 85 percent of cats and dogs over four years old are affected by periodontal disease — you don't want your four-legged companion to become part of that alarming statistic.

Here are five steps to help your pet's teeth and gums remain healthy:

1. Beware of Bad Breath

If a musky scent is coming from Fluffy's mouth, don't ignore it. This could be a warning sign that she has periodontal disease or another oral disease such as stomatitis, a common feline condition that causes painful inflammation of the gums and mouth tissues.

Other dental-health warning signs include bleeding gums, yellow or brown teeth, pawing at the mouth, and loose or missing teeth.

2. Brush Your Pet's Teeth

While it might be difficult at first, with enough patience and plenty of yummy rewards, you can turn tooth brushing into a bonding experience with your dog or cat. It might take several weeks to train your four-legged friend to warm up to the toothbrush, so start by letting her smell the toothbrush and pet toothpaste, then gradually work your way to brushing for 30 seconds on each side of her mouth at least every other day. By the way, human toothpaste isn't safe for pets, so be sure to use a product approved for your pet.

If you're scared your dog or cat will bite you, ask your veterinarian for alternative tartar-control options.

3. Consider Dental Toys, Treats and Food

While it's not as effective as brushing your pet's teeth, giving her treats, toys and food specifically designed to promote oral health will help her maintain healthy gums and teeth. Check for the Seal of Acceptance from the Veterinary Oral Health Council to make sure that whatever alternative you choose meets the standards for effective plaque and tartar control. 

4. Ask Your Vet for a Dental Exam

Humans aren't the only ones who need their chompers checked by a professional; your four-legged friend needs to have her teeth and gums checked by a veterinarian. During the dental exam, the vet will first take your pet's medical history, then ask if you've noticed any dental health warning signs such as bad breath. Next, he'll examine your pet, including checking the head and neck for any abnormalities. Finally, he'll check out your pet's teeth and gums for redness, bleeding and inflammation. He'll also be on the lookout for tooth loss, cracked teeth, plaque and tartar, as well as potentially cancerous lumps and bumps.

A cursory dental exam can usually be performed without sedation, unless your pet becomes aggressive or his teeth are very painful. For a complete dental evaluation, though, your pet will have to go under. 

5. Don't Let Anesthesia Stop You From Getting a Dental Cleaning

To thoroughly examine your pet's teeth and gums, properly get rid of nasty plaque and tartar, and really clean your pet's pearly whites, he'll need to be anesthetized. Though sedating your dog or cat sounds scary, it's not as bad as it sounds — in fact, the procedure has never been safer or more comfortable. Before your vet even begins anesthesia, he may recommend prescreening tests to help ensure that your pet is healthy enough for the procedure.

When you think about it, the benefits of dental cleaning outweigh the possible risks of anesthesia. When Fluffy wakes up, her breath will smell better, and her teeth will be shinier and healthier. And as an extra bonus, maintaining healthy teeth and gums helps protect the body's other organs, like the heart and kidneys, from the damaging effects of dental disease.

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