Ewww, to put it mildly. Now that you’re properly grossed out, take a minute to think about the state of your pet’s mouth. Does she exhibit any of the following: bad breath, bleeding gums, yellow or brown teeth, or facial swelling? Does he paw at his mouth or refuse to eat? About 70% of pets over the age of four have some degree of dental disease, just as you would if you went several decades without regular tooth brushing or a visit to the dentist.
Let’s first examine a healthy mouth. Both puppies and kittens are born without teeth. Baby teeth first appear in kittens at about two weeks of age; in puppies at about three weeks. Adult teeth come in between 3-6 months, at which time you may see slight bleeding and perhaps a stray tooth or two on your floor! A pet with a healthy mouth will have white teeth and pink gums. (Some pets have normal dark pigmentation.) Your pet’s breath should not stink, any more than yours should.
Periodontal disease is an infection of the gums and surrounding bone structure. It develops similarly in pets and humans. When your pet eats, leftover food particles and saliva combine to form plaque, a sticky substance that, unless removed, can harden into tartar in as little as 36 hours. This process changes the kinds of bacteria present in the mouth, creating an environment favorable to the types that cause disease. These bacteria cling to the tartar’s rough surface and proceed to damage the barrier between your pet’s teeth and gums. Eventually, gingivitis and bad breath occur. At this stage the damage can be reversed. Otherwise, the disease process will progress, with bacteria eventually affecting organs like the heart, liver and kidneys. Your pet can also suffer irreversible bone loss in the teeth and jaw.
You are, no doubt, now convinced that your pet needs a good oral hygiene routine. We brush and floss our teeth each day; how can you keep your pet’s mouth healthy? Daily brushing is best, starting when your pet is 8-12 weeks old. (You may need to stop temporarily when teething begins.) Make it part of your daily routine and always follow with something your pet enjoys so that she knows brushing means fun. Start by handling her mouth, then work up to rubbing her teeth and gums with a piece of gauze or a soft cloth, perhaps with a little broth or tuna juice on it. Offer tastes of pet-only toothpaste and experiment to see if a finger brush or a pet toothbrush works better. Concentrate on the back teeth and the outside surface since that’s where most tartar accumulates.
In addition to brushing, there are quite a few products that can help keep dental disease at bay. Oak Tree recommends specially designed kibbles for both dogs and cats as well as chews for dogs. Our online store has a large selection; just type “dental” in the search box. Make sure that dental products you select are approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC). Here is a link to lists of those that have been proven to work:
- Dogs: http://www.vohc.org/VOHCAcceptedProductsTable_Dogs.pdf
- Cats: http://www.vohc.org/VOHCAcceptedProductsTable_Cats.pdf
For safety, make sure you select chews and toys that are the correct size for your dog.
Just like us, even with daily brushing, your pet’s teeth will need periodic professional care. When he comes in for his preventive care exam, the veterinarian will grade his teeth on a scale of 0-4 and may recommend a dental cleaning. Pets need these annually. Cleanings are done under general anesthesia, with bloodwork and monitoring of vital signs for safety. The teeth are scaled and polished and x-rays are taken. Most periodontal disease is under the gums and x-rays allow the vet to see if any teeth are in severe enough condition to need treatment. Pain medication and laser therapy keep your pet comfortable. This video provides an overview of the procedure:
While some clinics advertise anesthesia free cleanings, it’s important to understand that these are mainly cosmetic and don’t allow for a complete oral exam and treatment. They’re also stressful for the pet and often cause additional pain.
Good dental care is a crucial component of your pet’s health. Be sure to discuss it at your pet’s next visit.