Brushing up on dental care for your pet

Dental and periodontal diseases are among the most prevalent problems seen in daily veterinary practice. Pet owners understand how important dental care is for themselves, yet many forget about the parts of their dog or cat that they see the least—their teeth and gums. Can you imagine what our own mouths would look like if we never brushed our teeth? If you’re not practicing some form of oral care at home for your pets, you don’t have to imagine too hard!

Studies have shown that most adult cats and dogs are living with dental problems that require medical intervention. Examples of these problems include severe tartar and calculi buildup, painful gingivitis, cracked or broken teeth, dental infections and oral tumors.

Being the good friends that our pets are, most will never complain. As a result, the majority of pet owners are unaware that dental problems may exist. Unlike a dog or cat who limps with a broken leg, an animal with a dental problem will probably appear to be normal, leaving their owners in the dark about their oral discomfort.

What to look out for

There are signs that you can watch for which might indicate your pet is suffering from dental or periodontal disease:

Bad breath (halitosis)
Loose or discolored teeth
Drooling, oral bleeding
Abnormal chewing
Bleeding from the nose, loss of appetite, possibly weight loss (severe cases)

If your pet becomes agitated or shies away when you touch his mouth or face, an underlying dental problem could be the cause. In addition, some animals will chew their food on only one side of their mouth if the other side is uncomfortable. If your pet is showing any of these signs, he might be suffering in silence from an underlying dental problem and should definitely be brought to your veterinarian for an examination.

Beyond simple discomfort for your pet, dental and periodontal disease can lead to a variety of serious problems affecting their overall health and quality of life. Dental tartar and plaque contain bacteria that damage the protective barrier of the gums and other underlying dental structures. As these lines of protection are damaged, bacteria on the surface of teeth gain access to tooth roots, jaw bones and the bloodstream. Systemic disease can result as oral bacteria travels through the bloodstream, potentially damaging internal organs, including the heart, liver and kidneys.

Professional cleaning

Take the first step toward good dental health for your pet by having his teeth examined on his next visit to the vet. Once you start to notice mineralized tartar and calculi formation, all the brushing in the world will not remove it. So it’s extremely important to not delay bringing in your dog or cat to your vet for an exam and to discuss a professional dental cleaning.

Dog-teeth-brushAs to when and how often to bring in your pet for continuing dental care, that depends on several factors. Smaller dogs with smaller, crowded mouths tend to need more frequent dental cleanings compared with large-breed dogs. Factors including genetics, a diet lacking in hard food and dental treats, plus infrequent teeth brushings at home will contribute to an increased need for professional dental cleanings by your veterinarian. In addition, cats and smaller dogs typically have longer life spans than large-breed dogs, resulting in more dental cleanings needed over time. Larger dogs that eat dry food and allow their teeth to be brushed may need fewer cleanings during their lifetimes.

Next, daily dental health should be addressed by brushing your dog or cat’s teeth on a daily basis. Of course, this process can seem daunting for many pet owners. Since it becomes more difficult to introduce animals to this practice as they get older, it’s a good idea to discuss oral home care with your veterinarian as early as possible. If your dog or cat gets used to you examining his mouth and brushing his teeth, oral home care can be a quick, painless bonding experience between you and your furry friend.

We recommend either a pet toothbrush or finger brush, along with special enzymatic toothpaste — both made specifically for use with animals — to brush your pet’s teeth. In addition to being safe to swallow, dog and cat toothpaste comes in appealing flavors, such as seafood, poultry and peanut butter, and is made with enzymes that help break down bacteria residing on the surface of teeth.

Along with a thorough oral examination, professional dental cleaning is highly recommended for your dog or cat. The procedure for animals is not much different from our own dental cleanings at the dentist, although it is performed under general anesthesia by a licensed veterinarian. (We’ve yet to meet a dog or cat that can hold their mouths open, tolerate their teeth being scraped and poked, or can spit into a bowl on command!)

Having your pet under anesthesia during their dental cleaning allows for proper scaling, probing, cleaning under the gum line, polishing and controlling pain. Most important, the anesthesia is delivered in a manner that simultaneously prevents oral bacteria and fluid from entering their windpipes and lungs. Advanced procedures that also must be performed under general anesthesia include x-rays, root canals and extractions.

Similar to the procedures for human patients, modern veterinary practice takes necessary precautions to reduce the risks of anesthesia as much as possible. Pre-anesthetic blood analysis allows a veterinarian to assess for underlying conditions, such as liver and kidney disease, which could compromise an animal’s health and increase the risk of complications. Be sure to inquire if your veterinary hospital includes pain medication as part of their anesthetic protocol. Just because Fluffy or Fido can’t talk doesn’t mean that he is not in pain.

The next time you take your dog or cat for a visit to their veterinarian, don’t forget to ask about dental care. Remember that oral care is more than just fresh breath! It’s a vital part of keeping your four-legged family member healthy and comfortable.

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