Happy National Pet Dental Health Month!
While oral care should be done year-round, this is a great time to talk about the importance of a healthy mouth for our dogs and cats. When our pets have bad breath (halitosis), it can range from a little unpleasant, to potentially life-threatening.
What causes bad breath?
As food particles and bacteria stick to your pet’s teeth, it causes plaque. Minerals in their saliva then hardens the plaque, turning it into tartar (dental calculus). If allowed to build up, and get under their gum line, this causes gingivitis or periodontal disease. That bacteria secretes toxins, and when their bodies try to fight it off, it damages the affected tissues.
Bad breath can also be a side effect of disease, including some cancers, infections, kidney disease, or diabetes. If left untreated, periodontal disease can cause loss of bone, teeth, and soft tissue, jaw fractures, a hole into their nasal passages, infections, and even contribute to heart, liver, and kidney problems.
It's more than just odors
Other signs that your pet has oral issues - beyond bad breath - include loose teeth, tumors or cysts, and excessive drooling. If you see blood on your dog’s toys after he’s been chewing on them, he likely has inflamed gums (gingivitis).
When you’re pet’s teeth or mouth hurts, it can also cause changes in behavior. They may not be eating enough because it’s painful to chew, or they may become irritable or aggressive if you touch them around their faces.
By the time your pet is exhibiting really bad breath or other symptoms, the periodontal disease has already been causing damage. It’s important to have your pet examined by a vet to determine what’s causing their bad breath, clean their teeth, and remove any teeth or other areas that are beyond repair.
Terms to know:
- Halitosis: bad breath
- Plaque: buildup of food particles and bacteria on the teeth
- Tartar: hardened plaque, dental calculus
- Gingivitis: inflamed gums caused by plaque and tartar
- Periodontal Disease: inflammation causing loss of bone and tissue around the teeth
Professional pet dental cleaning
Having your dog’s or cat’s teeth examined and cleaned by a pet dental professional, under anesthesia, is the only way to know the extent of the damage, to fully remove the tartar buildup, and to extract any teeth that can’t be saved. It’s recommended that your pet’s teeth be professionally cleaned once a year.
What happens during a pet dental cleaning?
First, the vet will do an oral exam and draw blood to determine whether they’re healthy enough for anesthesia. A good vet will have a very strict anesthesia process, in which a trained technician will be monitoring your pet’s vitals the entire time, making adjustments as needed, and making sure everything is going smoothly while the vet works on their teeth.
Once your pet is fully “out,” x-rays will be taken to identify any underlying issues, like abscesses, fractures, or tooth resorption: where the teeth painfully erode away to bone.
Any teeth that need to be removed will be done at this time. The vet will then clean the teeth and under the gum line to remove plaque and tartar, and polish the teeth to create a smooth surface that’s more difficult for bacteria to stick to.
How much does it cost to clean my pet’s teeth?
There are many factors that contribute to the cost of dental cleaning for dogs and cats, including an exam, x-rays, anesthesia, the cleaning itself, whether or not they need any teeth pulled and the difficulty of the extraction(s), as well as your geographic location, different clinics, or even the size of your pet.
Depending on what needs to be done, a pet dental procedure could range from a couple hundred dollars to $1,000 or more.
If you have pet insurance, it may cover dental cleanings. Here’s a list of some pet insurance companies to look into.
What about dental cleaning without anesthesia?
Some practitioners (or groomers) might offer “non-anesthesia dental scaling,” (NADS) in which pets are fully awake and restrained, while sharp tools (scalers) are used to scrape tartar from their teeth. It can be a traumatic experience for a pet that doesn’t understand what’s happening, and it really does not treat or prevent periodontal disease.
While their teeth may look whiter afterwards, there’s no way to clean under the gum-line (where the bacteria is damaging the bone and tissue), and if they find a tooth that needs to be extracted, they’ll need to undergo anesthesia to remove it anyway. Read more about reasons not to do NADS here.
The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) only certifies veterinary hospitals that adhere to these strict guidelines, which do not include NADS. Search for AAHA Certified clinics here: AAHA Search
Pet dental care at home
In addition to professional dental cleaning, diligent oral care at home is very important in preventing periodontal disease. By far, the best thing you can do for your pet’s teeth is to brush them daily.
Tools you’ll need to brush your pet's teeth:
- Toothpaste: Use a toothpaste made specifically for pets (never use human toothpaste!). They come in pet-friendly flavors like chicken, peanut butter, or mint. Look for brands that are “enzymatic.”
- Toothbrush: Toothbrushes made for dogs and cats are great, but you can also use a small, very soft human toothbrush as well (think children’s size).
- Finger brush: A small, rubber “brush” that fits over your finger can be used as well, if your pet won’t tolerate a toothbrush in their mouth.
- Cloth: Even just a small cloth or gauze rubbed on your pet’s teeth is better than nothing, but brushing is still best.
How to brush your dog’s (or cat’s) teeth:
Brushing your pet’s teeth is something that should be introduced slowly, and approached like a fun activity. Working up to the actual brushing will likely take multiple days.
Begin by putting a little toothpaste on your finger and letting them lick it off. (If they don’t like the taste, you’ll probably need to try a different one, to make sure it's an enjoyable experience.)
Gently touch around their faces, lift up their lips, and get comfortable with you handling their mouths. See if you can rub your finger lightly around their teeth and gums. Don’t worry about using the toothpaste at this point.
*If your pet reacts negatively or aggressively to touching his mouth, do not risk getting bitten; stop immediately.
Next, put some toothpaste on the brush you’ll use, and let them lick it off. If they seem upset or scared at any point, stop and try again another time.
Once they’re comfortable with the brush in their mouth, start brushing! Lift their upper lips and gently brush the outside of their teeth. Angle the bristles toward the gum line, and brush in a circular motion. Try to get both the top and bottom rows, as far back as you can, and don’t brush too aggressively. Those back molars tend to build up tartar more quickly than the front teeth.
They might want to keep their mouths closed, and that’s ok (and maybe even easier!) since you just need to get the outside edges of the teeth. Their tongues do a fairly good job of keeping the inner edges clean.
If you keep it fun, and reward them with a treat or playtime afterward, brushing your pet’s teeth will become an easy routine that they get excited about, rather than a stressful chore.
Here’s a great video that demonstrates brushing a dog’s teeth: View Dog Teeth Brushing on Youtube
And here’s that same vet demonstrating brushing a cat’s teeth: View Cat Teeth Brushing on Youtube
Dog and cat dental chews
There are countless products that claim to clean your dog’s or cat’s teeth, but which ones actually work, and are safe for them to chew on?
Here’s a couple lists of products that are accepted by the Veterinary Oral Health Council:
Gracie’s dentist recommended CET chews with chlorhexidine. Some people swear by raw bones, and I actually used to give them to Gracie, until she broke a tooth on one. *Never give your pets cooked bones! My cat, Simon, loves the catnip-flavored Greenies.
A rule of thumb I’ve heard from multiple vets and techs, is that if your fingernail can’t indent a chew, it’s too hard for them to chew on. Just something to consider when you're selecting a safe, effective chew.
It’s never too early to think about oral health
Caring for your pet’s teeth is an important part of their overall health and well-being. By keeping their mouths healthy, you can help prevent painful periodontal disease, and keep their breath fresh, even into their golden years.
- Some brushing is better than no brushing
- Starting now is better than not starting at all
Have you discovered any really effective chews, or fun methods for brushing your pet's teeth? Share in the comments, or in our Facebook group!
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