I brush my dog's teeth everyday and she's actually come to enjoy it. True, it might have something to do with the peanutbutter-flavored toothpaste, but regardless she opens her mouth whenever she sees me reach for her toothbrush. For many years, dental hygiene for pets was a matter of snickers. If my friends caught me brushing my dog's or cats' teeth ten years ago, they'd laugh into their hands. Now, they all have toothbrushes for their own pets and most of them bring Fido or Fluffy in for more professional cleaning once or twice a year.
The truth is that even with today's greater awareness of the need for dental care, veterinarians estimate that up to 80% of dogs and cats older than four years suffer from some sort of periodontal disease. Dog and cats can develop cavities, but they occur much more rarely than they do in humans since dogs consume less of the high-starch foods that cause tooth decay. After all, you hardly ever see a dog munching a candy bar! Gum disease, however, affects dogs and cats frequently.
Pets, just like humans, develop plaque. Plaque, untreated, becomes tartar that irritates the gums. Plaque can be removed by daily brushing, but tartar (that yellowy brown muck that settles on the teeth) must be removed by a veterinarian while your dog or cat is anesthetized. Untreated tartar eventually develops into gum disease and often results in tooth loss. Symptoms of oral problems include bad breath, bleeding and/or discolored gums, and tooth loss.
Dogs and cats with dental problems may drool or run fevers. A gum infection is, after all, an infection. Severe gum disease can significantly shorten your pet's life. If bacteria from gum disease invades the bloodstream, it can attack the heart, liver, and, kidneys. Dogs and cats accumulate tartar at different rates depending on breed, diet, and the acidity of their saliva. Some pets, just like some people, just have better teeth than others.
There are plenty of things you can do to help your pet maintain healthy teeth. Brushing your cat or dog's teeth daily is vital to preventing plaque buildup. Most pets enjoy you brushing their teeth—providing that you find a toothpaste that suits their taste. Lady, my cocker spaniel, won't tolerate unflavored or minty toothpaste. But, if you offer her peanutbutter, beef or chicken flavor, she opens wide. My cats, on the other hand, only like malty flavors. If you have multiple pets, it may take some time to find the toothpastes that they all enjoy. Luckily, the market is full of choices.
Toothbrushes also come in a wide variety of sizes and styles. My cats use a thumb-brush (Imagine a cross between a thimble and your toothbrush), but Lady uses a child-sized toothbrush. There are many great dog and cat brushes on the market, but for larger dogs a child's toothbrush with an angled head sometimes works best. There are also dental wipes for cats and dogs that absolutely refuse to have a brush in their mouths, as well as dental chews. I've found over the years that the earlier in life that you introduce your pet to a dental care routine, the easier daily dental care becomes. But, even an older dog can learn new tricks—Lady had her first tooth brushing when I adopted her at the age of three and she's had no problem adjusting.
Many pet food companies have started making tartar-removing treats and foods that aid in dental hygiene. Generally, these crunchy treats act as an abrasive, scraping off tartar. While they aren't enough to remove tartar and plaque alone, they definitely will aid in your dog's or cat's dental health. Pets who consume hard food as their primary food source, instead of canned foods, generally have cleaner teeth. Again, the abrasive action of hard foods helps remove plaque and tartar from your their teeth. Even hard chew toys can help dislodge bacteria and plaque.
Most importantly, your pet should have regular dental check-ups starting from a young age. Prevention is always the best course of action. Most adult dogs and cats need a professional cleaning once per year. However, some dogs and cats may need cleanings as often as twice per year. My cat Peppermint had habitually bad teeth and needed a professional tartar removal twice per year. Her sibling, Licorice, needed a cleaning only once every year and a half. After your pet's first professional cleaning, you should watch for tartar and plaque accumulation. You'll be able to assess your pet's need for professional tartar control. Usually, your veterinarian will assess your pet's dental health during their yearly check-up.
Dental health in pets is a very serious matter. Good dental health can prolong your pet's life and general health. You love your pet - give them something to smile about!