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CRITTER CHATTER: Pet Dental Health

The Paw Print

Essential Pet Blog

 “Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear

And it shows them pearly white”

Bobby Darin, Mack the Knife

by Dr. Phil

February is National Pet Dental Health Month and a good time to be reminded that in addition to good nutrition, grooming, exercise and veterinary examinations, regular home oral hygiene is important to promoting pet wellness, longevity and reducing the need for drastic veterinary dental procedures involving general anesthesia. Veterinarians estimate that 85% of dogs over the age of four are suffering from periodontal disease, a painful oral condition that can lead to tooth loss and even infection that could introduce bacteria into the blood stream with potential to affect heart, kidneys and liver function.

Most problems can be prevented with regular cleanings, veterinary checkups and routine home dental care.  There are various home oral care techniques and pet products available to help minimize plaque (bacterial film) accumulation and thus prevent tartar  (mineralized plaque) formation.

Regular brushing is the foundation of good oral health. It is certainly best begun at an early age, but even if your adult dog has never had his teeth brushed before, start now. A regular home program of daily – or, at least three to four times a week – brushing helps avoid dental problems, especially as animals age.

Toothbrushes designed for dogs are often angled to help clean the back teeth. The key to success is being patient and gentle.  Start slowly and stop if your pet becomes agitated, but don’t give up. Try to increase brushing duration a little bit each day.  Begin  brushing only the outsides of the “cheek teeth”, being careful with any areas that look red or inflamed.  Gradually brush all teeth. Finger brushes or dental wipes are useful in beginning the process and getting your pet to accept the mechanics of the procedure.

Only use toothpaste developed specifically for pets because human products include fluoride (poisonous to dogs), abrasives and foaming detergents that cause vomiting when ingested, and do not have the taste or aroma that appeals to pets.  Dogs and cats seem to enjoy the flavor of poultry, liver or seafood, none of which particularly appeals to me as I’m getting ready to brush my teeth at bedtime.

Chlorhexidine is a very effective anti-plaque antiseptic that adheres to oral tissue and tooth surfaces.  It is available as a gel, liquid, wipe or additive to a pet’s drinking water.  It is safe and rarely causes any problems.  Unfortunately, it may have a bitter taste that some animals object to….or not (Charlotte likes it.)

Dry pet foods are better than canned for promoting oral health because hard, crunchy kibble is less likely to stick to teeth while the mechanical action of crunching helps reduce plaque accumulation. There are also several specially formulated “dental diets” that may help prevent dental disease using particular kibble designs or additives shown to help reduce tartar.

There are many chew toys and treats designed to strengthen your dog’s bones and teeth and reduce the accumulation of plaque and tartar. While these products are an important part of an oral hygiene program, they should be used with good judgment and under supervision at all times.

Regular home dental care is indeed extremely important, but also have your pet’s gums and teeth examined by a veterinarian at least once yearly, and, as your dog ages, every six months. Serious gum or tooth disease can be prevented or treated if detected early. However, if you notice any of the following signs, have a veterinarian examine your animal right away:

  • Bad breath
  • Excessive drooling
  • Trouble eating
  • Lost teeth
  • Pawing at the side of the mouth
  • Red, bleeding or swollen gums
  • Any unusual growth within the mouth

A regularly scheduled regime of brushing using pet toothpaste, antiseptic topical treatments, feeding hard kibble and using age and size appropriate chew toys go a long way in promoting fresh breath and pearly whites.

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