Last month was National Pet Dental Health Month, and in fact, one of the most common
problems we see as veterinarians is dental disease. If you’re wondering how your own
pets might fare with a look under the hood, take a quick peek yourself. Like us, all cats
and dogs get tartar and gingivitis. Unlike us, their tartar quickly turns to calculus,
something as hard as concrete in a very short time.
One of the most important parts of your pet’s health exam is the mouth. Unless their teeth
are brushed regularly, they can quickly look (and smell) terrible. One of the most
challenging things I can say to a client is, “What do you think we start brushing these
things?” And then I see the look on Mrs. Smith’s face. A look of despair and
hopelessness, as if I had just asked her to play Rachmaninoff in front of a crowd of
At the Parthenon.
Then the kicker – to help our animals maintain a healthy mouth, we recommend brushing
those teeth at least every other day. Cats and small dogs are particularly prone to
periodontal disease, which causes deep pockets of infection around the teeth, weakening
their attachments. And eventually, the teeth fall out. It’s amazing how quickly our pets
can lose their teeth. Cats can also get cavities, which are painful and can lead to broken
Identifying & Preventing Dental Problems
So how do you know your pets have dental problems? If she’s eating, she’s fine, right?
Not necessarily. It’s amazing how much discomfort animals will tolerate when it comes
to food. Rarely will a dog or cat stop eating because of dental disease, even a broken
tooth. Sometimes these signs are obvious: bad breath, hardened plaque and even tooth
These are the things we can see.
What we can’t see is the stress bad teeth put on the immune system. With dental
problems, the immune system is busy dealing with the infection and inflammation under
the gums and is less able to protect the body from bacteria, viruses, cancers and other
serious threats. Studies have shown that people with dental disease have higher
incidences of heart, liver and kidney disease. Animals too.
So it’s all about brushing. Let’s go back to that oral examination. Cats and dogs have
plaque, the film which forms on the teeth and in pockets under the gum line. In the first
24 to 48 hours, it’s easily removed with a brush. After that, it begins to harden and turn
into tartar, which can’t be brushed off. If there is visible tartar, there is most likely
infection under the gums, too. And unfortunately, the only way to get rid of it is to have
your vet do a proper cleaning.
A few years ago, we saw the advent of the first “non-anesthetic” dental cleanings. Not so
much here on the Hill, but certainly around the rest of country. These would be done be
certain groomers, touted as safer than having anesthesia and going to your vet. They
quickly became illegal because, for one thing, they caused harm by damaging the
protective enamel of the teeth. And they didn’t clean the teeth! You can’t simply chip that
tartar off and call it a day. You’ve got to get under the gums, clean, rinse and polish. And
how many animals will sit quietly while someone is chipping tartar from their teeth?
In fact, we feel lucky if we can get the briefest of glimpses of our patients’ mouths, never
mind spend an hour cleaning their teeth with them awake and struggling. And that’s how
long it takes – a proper dental cleaning takes time, at least twice the time it can take to
spay a big dog, for instance. And if your vet is doing x-rays, which he should, it can take
even more time. Since patience isn’t really part of our pets’ repertoires, dental work
requires anesthesia. But today, anesthetics are so advanced that the risks for healthy
animals are considerably lower than the risk of dental disease.
So how do you brush those teeth? For one thing, if they are clean already, start now! The
most important part of brushing is the brush. Remember it takes only 48 hours for plaque
to harden into tartar, so you need to brush at least every other day to be effective. Use a
soft tooth brush specifically made for pets and special toothpaste for them as well. These
pastes have an enzyme in them to break down plaque. And they can be swallowed by
your pet. And believe me, they will be.
Brushing alone is the most important part, though the toothpaste helps. Most dogs and
cats will allow a brief (one minute or less) brushing without too much objection. Start
slowly! For some animals the first session might be just a quick swipe followed by a
treat. You can work up from there. It’s those outside surfaces where most of the tartar
forms, so don’t try to brush the inside surfaces of the teeth unless your pet is unusually
cooperative. And you don’t have to be a dental hygienist to do this well. Any brushing
will help. And the more often you do it, the more your dog or cat will get used to it and
hopefully even like it. And remember to give them a treat afterwards.
Most dogs eventually even enjoy tooth brushing. Cats … well, let’s just say they’re a
little more resistant. Still, it’s quite possible to do this effectively for both species. And
the benefits, both the visible and invisible, will be incalculable