One of the most overlooked aspects of care for dogs and cats is dental health -- and it's not just about ending bad breath or getting a prettier smile on your pet. Dental disease in cats and dogs is a serious health problem that causes them pain, puts strain on their internal organs and shortens their lives.
And yes, it also makes their breath stink.
How bad is the problem? The fact is that eight of 10 dogs and cats over the age of 3 are already showing signs of periodontal disease. Left untreated, these early problems become increasingly serious.
Early signs of problems include discoloration of teeth, tartar buildup and redness at the gum line. These symptoms require your veterinarian's attention to treat, after which you can help prevent further problems at home.
Fortunately, it's easy to change your pet's dental destiny. Veterinarians now recommend brushing your pet's teeth daily to prevent problems. It's not difficult to teach pets to accept this daily regimen, as long as you start slowly and use positive reinforcement as your pet learns to accept first your handling of his mouth, the introduction of brush and paste and finally a full daily brushing. Take your time, and let your pet be your guide as to how quickly to proceed with your training. Puppies and kittens learn to accept brushing quickly, but even adult pets can learn if you're patient, positive and persistent. Pet toothpastes don't foam up like human toothpastes (designed for humans who like action inside the mouth as they brush). Use a tasty toothpaste meant for pets: Not only is it in a pet-friendly flavor like salmon, poultry or beef, but it's also designed to be swallowed. Unlike people, pets can't rinse and spit.
But brushing isn't enough: Your pet also needs your veterinarian's help to keep teeth and gums healthy. That means a complete oral examination on at least an annual basis -- twice a year is even better -- which may include dental X-rays to locate problems just as it does with your own dentist.
If there are problems, your veterinarian will recommend a complete dental under anesthesia, including scaling of the teeth, removal of any broken or diseased teeth, and treatment of diseased gums. Some groomers offer "anesthesia-free" teeth cleanings. These are cosmetic procedures at best, and may, in fact, make your pet's dental problems worse in the long run, especially if you're relying on these measures in place of a true veterinary procedure. It's understandable to be concerned about anesthesia, but your veterinarian can and will minimize any risk, and the problems of dental disease are worse in the long run than a short period of anesthesia.
After your pet has had his dental problems addressed -- or before he has them, ideally -- your veterinarian may recommend other preventive measures. The key is daily oral care. The best is brushing, and while daily brushing is recommended, even weekly brushing provides major benefits. If you're unwilling or unable to brush your pet's teeth (know the vast majority of pet owners don't brush their pet's teeth) or need to take additional preventative measure you may utilize one or more of the following: Special foods with dental benefits such as Hill's Prescription Diet t/d that are meant to scrub teeth as a pet eats, dental treats such as Greenies which act like edible tooth brushes (are even in a toothbrush shape), dental wipes such as Dentacetic, oral gels such as Oravet to help prevent tartar formation and therapeutic chew toys such as Bristle Bone to keep pets happy while cleaning the teeth.
When choosing toys, avoid those that are rock-hard, as these may break teeth. The guideline: if you wouldn't want a pet's toy to hit in the kneecap, it's too hard to give your pet.
February is National Pet Dental Health Month, which was started to educate about the importance of dental health and build awareness of its importance. Many veterinary hospitals and clinics offer discounts on dental care during February as an added incentive. Talk to your veterinarian!