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Imagine what would happen to your mouth if you never brushed your teeth. On second thought don’t... it’s not a pretty picture! And yet, very few of our pets ever experience any consistent type of home oral care. It’s no surprise that periodontal disease is, hands down, the most common disease we encounter in veterinary medicine. According to veterinary dental specialists, 80% of all dogs and cats have some type of periodontal disease (almost 100% if they are over the age of 10) and 25% have fractured teeth. “Dog breath”, which really means bad breath, is common but it is not normal. 94% of dog breath is cause by dental disease.

It begins as plaque, a film of bacteria that starts to cover the teeth within 24 hours. Within 3 days that plaque hardens into tartar, which is much more difficult to remove from the teeth. Within as little as 3 weeks the bacteria in the plaque and tartar start to affect the gums and this is the beginning of periodontal disease.

Periodontal disease is not just about teeth and gums. If left untreated it can lead to oro-nasal fistulas (abnormal openings between the mouth and nose), abscesses, bone infection, broken jaws, blindness if the inflammation is close to the eye, and oral cancer from chronic mouth irritation. The bacteria in the mouth can get into the bloodstream and cause infections in other parts of the body, including the heart. Any chronic infection will weaken the overall health of your pet.

Dental disease is painful! Broken or chipped enamel on the teeth exposes the soft dentin underneath. The dentin has tiny tubules that lead to the nerves and blood vessels in the tooth root. This makes the tooth very sensitive. A cracked tooth hurts! Those tubules are also a path for bacterial invasion and tooth root infection. A broken tooth can develop an abscess years later.

While dogs and cats do not get cavities as often as people, they can still get them, especially cats. Cavities in cats are known as Feline Oral Resorptive Lesions (FORLs). They look like a small hole or dent in the tooth, usually near the gum line. Sometimes you will see a bit of gum that has grown down over the tooth as the body attempts to plug the hole. These are always extremely painful. Be on the lookout for excessive drooling, dropping food or reluctance to eat, “chewing funny”, or sensitivity when your pet is touched around the face or mouth.

Even if you don’t have cavities or broken teeth, the infected tissue in periodontal disease causes chronic pain. Our pets can’t tell us that they hurt and most pets, even if the problem is severe, will not stop eating, will not yelp or cry out or paw at their faces or let on how much discomfort they are really experiencing. They bear it all without complaining and the only way we know they are in pain is by how how much happier they seem after their dental disease is taken care of.

All pets need dental care, but small dogs and certain breeds of cats are more prone to dental problems than the rest. Short nosed breeds have shortened mouths leading to crowded, crooked teeth and dental problems. Breeds prone to periodontal disease should have their mouths evaluated at least twice a year, every 3 to 4 months for some. All pets, even those with healthier teeth, should have an oral exam along with their general physical at least once a year.

So what can you do at home? The gold standard is active dental care - aka brushing your pet’s teeth. The best time to start is when your pet is very young. Start by letting your puppy or kitten get used to you handling his or her head and mouth, lifting the lips and touching the teeth. Once your pet is relaxed with your touch, you can introduce it to pet toothpaste (your pet will not spit after brushing so use toothpaste made for pets, not baking soda or human tooth paste which are not meant to be swallowed). Once the taste is accepted you can start brushing. If your pet is nervous, start with just a tooth or two and slowly work your way up to the whole mouth. To better help your pet accept dental care, associate the procedure with praise, play and treats. Stay committed and make it as routine as your own dental care.

While it is easier if you start young, it is never too late! Older pets need even more care than younger ones. But if your pet already has tartar and periodontal disease, professional veterinary dental care will be needed to create a healthy mouth again - followed up with active care at home.

The second best thing to do is called passive care, such as an oral rinse or gel. While not as good as brushing, it can still be helpful. You can let your pet help it’s own teeth with chew toys, dental treats or healthy chews such as thick, raw carrots. Your pet has to chew fairly evenly with all its teeth for the chew toy to be truly effective and it is not as thorough or as reliable as brushing. But everything helps. Not all chew toys are created equal and only a few are recommended by veterinary dentists (see below). Be careful, anything your dog chews that you cannot push your fingernail into is potentially hard enough to chip or crack a tooth.

Contrary to popular opinion, there is no difference between dry food or wet food when it comes to dental care. A healthy diet helps everything in general, but only a few diets have been formulated and scientifically shown to help reduce plaque and tartar. Look for the seal of approval from the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) on the label.

Here is a link to diets, chew toys and oral rinse products that have been approved by VOHC.

We are committed to helping you keep your pet as healthy as possible and your pet cannot be truly healthy if its mouth isn’t healthy. Please call the clinic today to schedule your pet’s free oral evaluation and dental grading with one of our trained technicians and be sure and ask any questions you may have. The more you understand, the better you can take care of your pet. We are happy to explain any problems that we may find.

For tips on brushing, check out the many videos on YouTube, for example: