Painful toothaches and gingivitis have mercy on no one, man or beast. Here’s a guide to help you keep your pet’s teeth and gums happy and healthy.

Many pet owners tend to overlook their pet’s bad breath, dismissing it as normal. In fact, bad breath, along with sore or bleeding gums are warning signs that your dog or cat may be developing painful periodontal disease. When it comes to the importance of your pet’s dental hygiene, it goes way beyond a pretty smile. Good dental health not only helps your pet eat comfortably but contributes to overall pet health, as well. While dental care for pets often gets short shrift, establishing good dental habits early in your pet’s life will pay major dividends throughout his life.

Be Vigilant

Just like humans, pets need routine brushings to win the lifelong battle with plaque. As your pet eats, plaque builds up, eventually hardening into the calcified material we know as tartar. If plaque is you pet’s arch nemesis, tartar is her mortal enemy. Tartar not only irritates gums, but it also becomes a playground for bacteria.

If left untreated, the gums will become inflamed, pulling back from the teeth and creating pockets that, you guessed it, harbor even more harmful bacteria. As gum disease progresses, the gums may bleed, the roots of your pet’s teeth may be exposed, teeth may loosen, and your pet may actually feel pain as she eats her dinner. Over time this bacteria can find its way into your pet’s bloodstream, leading to liver and kidney problems. It’s insidious, painful, and, yes, disgusting. But it is also very preventable.

Watch for Warning Signs

It’s not hard to spot your pet’s tooth and gum problems as they develop. The warning signs are clear. The trick is learning not to dismiss them. Here are a few of the most common warning signs.

  • Bad breath
  • Sensitivity around the mouth
  • Loss of appetite
  • Yellow or brown deposits on the teeth
  • Bleeding, inflamed, and withdrawn gums
  • Loose or missing teeth
  • Pawing at the mouth or face
  • Difficulty chewing

Learn to Brush

It’s never too early to start familiarizing your pet with the old toothbrush routine. With praise and a few tasty rewards, a quick little dental scrubbing can even become a bonding experience.

1. Start by rubbing your pet’s teeth with a soft gauze pad. Wrap the gauze around your finger to secure it as you rub. This will familiarize your pet with the brushing process.

2. Work your way up to a pet toothbrush. Specially designed cat and dog toothbrushes, as well as toothpastes, are available through most pet retailers. Don’t use toothpaste designed for humans.

3. Focus on the gumline. The line where the teeth meet the gums is the most critical area to scrub.

4. Spend 30 seconds brushing each side of the mouth a few times per week.

Enlist Your Vet’s Help

Your veterinarian is there not only to help with serious dental emergencies but also to assist with routine care. Regular checkups are essential to keeping a close eye on your dog or cat’s dental health. Your vet may also recommend a prophylaxis — a cleaning procedure that requires medication and/or anesthesia. In the event that your pet is suffering from a more serious condition, your vet can recommend the proper course of treatment — a tooth extraction, for instance.

If your pet simply won’t tolerate the toothbrush, ask your vet about alternative ways to slow plaque buildup in between checkups.

Consider Switching to Dry Food

While not as effective as brushing, dry food can help keep your pet’s teeth and gums healthy. In addition, there are a number of foods, treats, and toys available that are specifically designed to promote dental health. Check for the Seal of Acceptance from the Veterinary Oral Health Council to make sure it meets high standards for effective plaque and tartar control.

This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.