Dog Brushing Teeth
Let’s face it: No matter how much you adore your pup or kitty, her breath can be downright gross at times. But that may mean that she needs more than a good brushing — bad breath can be a sign that your pet is suffering from gum disease (also known as periodontal disease), which can lead to serious health concerns, ranging from tooth loss to organ damage.

With a majority of adult pets suffering from some degree of periodontal disease, maintaining your pet’s oral hygiene isn’t a luxury — it’s a vital piece of her healthcare routine. Here’s how to keep your pet’s mouth cleaner so you can keep your cat or dog healthier 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, about 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats over the age of 3 suffer from significant oral disease that requires treatment. Such treatment might include a tooth or multiple teeth being pulled to stop infection and prevent additional health problems.

But your pet’s teeth don’t need to get to this point. When she visits the veterinarian for her annual or six-month examination, the doctor will check her teeth. He or she will be on the lookout for reddened gums, yellow-brown tartar and other signs of dental disease. The doctor also may recommend that your pet gets dental X-rays to check whether there are hidden signs of disease below the gum line and in the bones. Performing a full dental exam and taking X-rays require sedation, but it’s well worth it for the vital information these procedures reveal about your pet’s dental health.  If there is any evidence of dental disease, the veterinarian will likely recommend a dental cleaning for your pet.

Just like in human medicine, a thorough dental cleaning involves cleaning your pet’s teeth with a scaler and checking the gums for periodontal "pockets" (areas where the gums have pulled away from the teeth). But unlike people, cats and dogs don’t 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 of 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 pet.

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 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 (ideally, one specifically for pets) or a finger brush and toothpaste. Be sure to use toothpaste specially formulated for pets, since toothpaste for people is designed to be spit out and can be harmful to cats and dogs when swallowed.

Next, 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 her teeth without it (several flavors are available, so you can always try a different one next time). Hold the toothbrush at a 45º angle to the tooth surface with the bristles pointing toward the gums. Work the toothbrush in a circular motion, concentrating on the outside surfaces of the teeth — and don’t forget the cheek teeth in the back. 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 her mouth touched. Then you can gradually work up to longer brushing sessions. While most pets eventually can be acclimated to enjoying (or at least not resisting) having their teeth brushed, some pets are more resistant than others.

3. Feed Your Pet a Special Dental Diet if Recommended
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 by using a specialized kibble to provide better mechanical cleansing of the teeth. Ask your veterinarian if a special dental diet is right for your pet.

4. Offer Appropriate Chew Treats
Some treats are designed to help keep your cat’s or dog’s teeth cleaner. Look for products that carry the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal. This seal signifies products that meet pre-set standards of effectiveness when it comes to controlling plaque and tartar in dogs and cats. While products that lack the VOHC seal certainly may work, you can be confident that products that have earned the seal are truly effective. It’s also helpful to know which treats you should probably avoid. For example, treats like cow hooves, pig’s ears and real bones can damage your pet’s teeth or cause other serious problems if ingested. Also, as much as your pooch may love playing catch with a tennis ball, the yellow/green spheres are notorious for causing mechanical wearing of the tooth surface. If possible, offer your dog nonabrasive balls or toys. Not sure which toys are safe? Check with your vet.

Keeping your pet’s teeth cleaner requires a commitment on your part. 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 help keep your pet’s pearly whites a shining example of health — so the rest of her body will be, too. 

Signs of 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/dropping food when trying to eat
  • Excessive drooling
  • Change in eating habits
  • Pawing at the mouth or rubbing the face against the floor or furniture
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