February rings in "National Pet Dental Health Month," and while you may think this holiday sounds as contrived as Valentine’s Day, it’s a pet necessity. Over 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats show signs of dental disease by three years of age, and unfortunately only two percent of pet lovers out there actually brush their pets' teeth daily (um, myself included, but do what I say, not what I do).
Halitosis, chronic mouth pain, tooth loss and receding gums aren’t your pet’s only problem with having a foul mouth – dental disease can result in bacteria from the mouth entering the bloodstream, resulting in rare but deadly infections in the heart, kidneys, and liver.
Here, five tips to motivate and make it easier to keep your pet’s mouth more kissable.
1. Know what’s normal
A few years ago, I was brushing JP’s teeth (I only brush his teeth when I bathe him, which is approximately every other month). During this infrequent brushing, I found a cancerous, aggressive gum tumor called an epuli . As a veterinarian, I was dismayed that I had missed this, as it had probably been slowly growing there for weeks. Thankfully, after an aggressive tooth and partial jaw bone removal, JP was cured. But had I been monitoring my mutt’s mouth more carefully, it could have resulted in a more benign surgery.
So, if this can happen to a veterinarian, pay heed. Commit yourself to knowing what’s normal for your pet’s mouth: pink gums, white teeth, and decent breath. Start by lifting up your pet’s cheek flaps so you can inspect the gums and teeth. If you notice any signs of pawing at the face or mouth, a change in eating or chewing habits, halitosis, redness near the gum line, bleeding after brushing, or abnormalities (like tumors or masses), take your pet in for a professional look.
More importantly, be consistent. Pick one day and time (for example, Sunday after brunch) to do a full mouth inspection and consistently brush your pet’s teeth. Let’s be realistic — I’m not asking for daily teeth brushing — but let’s try for at least weekly.
2. Know why you need to brush and what to brush with
Keep in mind that your goal of brushing your pet’s teeth isn’t to scrape off that hard yellow, brown, foul tartar — that can only be done under anesthesia by a professional veterinary cleaning. Brushing prevents plaque buildup, which eventually hardens into tartar. By brushing, you can minimize plaque (and hopefully tartar), which keeps your pet’s gingivitis down.
When brushing, pick the right tool. A fancy, electronic toothbrush isn’t necessary. Using a small piece of pantyhose or a 3x3 cotton gauze pad wrapped around your finger is the perfect soft — yet abrasive — texture to scrape away plaque. You can add in a small dab of pet-flavored liver or chicken toothpaste or even dip the toothbrush in small amounts of beef bouillon to encourage your pet to tolerate this.
3. Start habits early
If you have a new puppy or kitten, start by training your pet early. Gentle, gradual introductions to teeth brushing is important — after all, it takes a lot to get your pet used to a human sticking some hard plastic contraption in their mouth for the sake of dental hygiene. Make brushing time fun — massage your pet’s face, cheeks and gums, and gradually move to short brushing intervals that your pet will tolerate. Start with short 10-15 second sessions, and gradually increase the time so you achieve your goal of getting one minute of weekly brushing!
4. Heed these breeds
Certain breeds are more predisposed to severe dental disease — be it genetics, nutrition, or what have you. Miniature Poodles, Yorkshire terriers, and greyhounds are especially susceptible. Cats with underlying infectious problems (like feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency virus) are also very predisposed to gum disease.
5. Don’t give up
If you tried it all and your pet just won’t tolerate brushing, try the weekly "dental friendly" treat or diet instead. Certain types of dental treats or diets are designed to help scrape off plaque and tartar — this obviously isn’t as effective as brushing, and it only helps if your pet actually chews the food.
I’ve tried some of these treats or diets on my own pets, and they simply swallowed the treat or kibble whole, which negates all "chewing dental-friendly benefits." You can try certain dental-friendly rope chews or rawhides too — just keep in mind that all pets should be supervised while chewing on these.
Other products include water additives or dental mouth sprays; these actually are beneficial for reducing tartar, but they still don’t scrape away plaque the way brushing does. Add to it that they often don’t taste good and leave a metallic taste in your pet’s mouth. For me, it’s more important that your pet be drinking normally (to maintain hydration and kidney function) versus not drinking enough for tartar’s sake. When in doubt, consult your veterinarian about the best product for your pet’s mouth.
Dr. Justine Lee