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Brush Your Pet's Teeth—You'll Regret It Otherwise

February is pet dental health month.

Puppy and kitten breath is sweet, but it doesn’t stay that way. All too soon, pets start to get pushed away because they have “doggy breath” or “tuna breath.” What kind of relationship is that to have with your best friend?

February is pet dental health month, and it’s more than a marketing ploy to get you to spend money at your local veterinary clinic. Periodontal disease—the cause of that nasty breath—is a common pet health problem, especially as animals mature. They can’t brush their teeth themselves, so if no one does it for them, plaque and tartar build up on the teeth, causing ugly brown stains and harboring the bacteria that are the source of infection and stinky breath.

Brush your pet’s teeth? Really?

You bet. Daily brushing is the single most important thing you can do to keep Bailey and Baxter’s breath sweet and teeth tartar-free. More important, good dental hygiene contributes to your pet’s overall health and can even increase his life span. The bacteria that build up beneath the gum line enter the blood stream and can settle in the heart valves, kidneys, and liver. The kidneys and liver have to work overtime to clean up the mess, and it’s bad news for senior pets or those with puny immune systems.

If you start when your puppy or kitten is young, the habit can prevent the need for frequent (and expensive) professional cleanings. It can also help you find problems such as abscesses or broken teeth that could be causing pain, infection and lack of appetite.

“The same disease processes that occur in people’s mouths occur in pets’s mouth and cause a lot of problems,” says veterinarian Melissa Byers of Lake Forest Animal Clinic. “A lot of people don’t think about looking in their pets’ mouths, or they only look at the front teeth, which usually look great, but it’s the back molars that they don’t see where the problems start.”

Wondering how to tell if your pet has dental problems?

Start with the sniff test. Contrary to popular opinion, bad breath isn’t normal for pets. Look at your pet’s mouth monthly for signs of infection: redness, loose teeth and painful areas. Ugly brown tartar stains also indicate that it’s time for a veterinary cleaning. Cats, unlike dogs, get painful cavities. Take a cotton swab and press it along your cat’s gum line. If he flinches, he probably has a cavity that requires veterinary treatment. Other signs include changes in eating or chewing habits, pawing at the face or mouth, and even depression. You’d be down in the mouth too if your teeth hurt all the time.  

While it’s best to brush your pet’s teeth daily, your veterinarian will give you a gold star even if you do it only once a week. The easiest way to brush your dog or cat’s teeth is with a small brush that fits over the tip of your finger. Squeeze a little toothpaste made for pets on it—they don’t have to spit it out and it won’t upset their stomach—and give the teeth a quick going over. Be sure you don’t miss the “cheek” teeth in the back. You can be done in 15 seconds, Dr. Byers says.

If you’re not brushing daily, other ways to help prevent a plaque attack on teeth include giving treats impregnated with plaque-busting substances and using tartar-control rinses, sprays, gels or wipes. Chewing on rope or sheepskin toys or hard rubber toys with grooves is the canine or feline equivalent of flossing.

Look for sprays, rinses and wipes that contain chlorhexidine or zinc ascorbate cysteine compounds. Chlorhexidine products contain enzymes that dissolve plaque and help reduce bacteria, and ZAC compounds encourage collagen production, which helps stimulate the healing of gum tissue. Treating a pet’s teeth with these products doesn’t take the place of brushing, but it’s better than nothing.

Don’t forget your ferret, bunny, hamster or guinea pig. Ferrets get periodontal disease just like cats and dogs. The biggest problem with hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits is overgrown teeth. They need to be trimmed, just as you would toenails. You can learn to trim the teeth yourself or have the veterinarian do it.

If your dog or cat has already developed periodontal disease—and most have by 2 to 4 years of age—a veterinary cleaning under anesthesia combined with periodontal disease treatments can help keep it from progressing. Your veterinarian may recommend placing chips or gels that contain antibiotics beneath the gum line to help slow the progression of periodontal disease.

This Valentine’s Day, make a commitment to brush your dog or cat’s teeth at least weekly, if not daily. Because nothing’s sweeter than a kiss from a pet with fresh breath.

Rebecca Rackleff February 15, 2011 at 01:50 AM
Great article! I have a couple tips though that I've recently learned that I wish others had shared with me sooner. Try the flavored toothpaste. Dogs tolerate this toothpaste MUCH better. Mine prefer the peanut butter flavor, but I have seen beef and poultry flavors as well in the pet stores. The finger brushes are a great option, but if you have a smaller dog (I have a small yorkie), it can be even harder to get in there to clean his or her teeth. Some pet stores carry plastic gloves with the finger brushes attached to the thumb and index finger and those work the best for the tiny mouths and those hard to reach teeth in the back.
Robin Barr February 18, 2011 at 11:14 PM
I agree with Rebecca's comment. One of my two dogs is small and too challenging to get in the back of the mouth even with a very small toothbrush. The little finger brushes just don't allow the control I need to get the job done, nor do I quite know where I am in the back of the mouth. So I've switched to using gauze which works out well and I can get in and out quickly and my dogs don't seem to mind it. It also seems like it would be more sanitary since its disposed of after each use (per dog!). I need to improve on this, but currently brushing their teeth approximately 3-4 times a week. Love, love, love my dogs. Robin Barr www.SaddleBackBuzz.wordpress.com www.RobinBarrBuzz.com
Cindy K February 20, 2011 at 06:37 PM
Our 15 year old dog, Biggie, perked up so much after taking him to the vet to have his teeth cleaned and the decaying ones pulled. His mouth was infected which adversely contributed to his overall well being. Expensive but worth it!!
Kim Campbell Thornton February 28, 2011 at 09:55 PM
Great tips, everyone! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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