February is Pet Dental Health Month! We all know that we are supposed to brush and floss our teeth regularly to maintain oral health, but did you know that your pets also need regular dental care? Approximately 70% of cats and 80% of dogs in the United States are affected by dental disease. Dental health is about more than just clean teeth. Caring for your pet’s oral hygiene can help prevent health problems later.
Why Dental Health Matters
According to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), dental disease is “a painful condition that occurs when bacteria, plaque, and tartar build up on the teeth and get trapped beneath the gumline. The bacteria can be absorbed into the bloodstream and wreak havoc on other major organs throughout the body.” The AAHA states that dental disease starts early in life and that the majority of dogs and cats have some degree of dental disease by the age of 3.
Dental disease doesn’t just affect your pet’s teeth and gums; it can also affect the function of other organs and body systems. According to the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) periodontal disease is the most common dental condition in dogs and cats and can lead to kidney, liver, and heart changes in your pet’s older years. Neglecting your pet’s teeth can cause chronic pain and may even lead to weight loss and behavioral changes.
Signs of dental disease or issues with your pet’s oral health include:
- Bad breath
- Broken or loose teeth
- Extra teeth or retained baby teeth
- Teeth that are discolored or covered in tartar
- Abnormal chewing, drooling, or dropping food from the mouth
- Reduced appetite or refusal to eat
- Pain in or around the mouth
- Bleeding from the mouth
- Swelling in the areas surrounding the mouth
Always be sure to schedule regular veterinary exams for your pets. Annual exams include a dental check-up, which can help you catch signs of dental disease early. Be sure to mention anything out of the ordinary, like foul smelling breath or excessive drooling, to your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will also provide regular teeth cleanings, extractions, or repairs if necessary to help maintain your pet’s oral health.
Providing regular home dental care for your pets can help prevent problems like bad breath or tooth loss as well as keep any dental disease from worsening, thus causing chronic pain or organ damage.
Not sure how much you already know about your pet’s dental health? Take this quiz from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) to find out!
Tools for Home Dental Care
- Toothbrushes: Be sure to use a pet appropriate toothbrush. You can use soft bristled brushes that look much like human toothbrushes but are smaller or finger brushes with rubber bristles. Some people even use gauze wrapped around their finger, but be careful it doesn’t snag on your pet’s teeth if you do that.
- Toothpaste: Always use pet safe toothpastes; never use human toothpaste. Human toothpaste includes foaming agents and other chemicals that can upset your pet’s stomach. Pet toothpastes come in a variety of types and flavors. You can get gels or pastes in chicken, beef, liver, mint, or peanut butter flavors to encourage your pet’s enjoyment of the process. There are even some oral sprays that are designed to help break down tartar build-up, but make sure you introduce that slowly to your pet as well because the action of the spray bottle could be startling or stressful.
- Chews and toys: There are many types of dental chews and regular toys that can aid in caring for your pet’s teeth and gums. Products like Greenie chews or Nylabone toys are frequently recommended by experts. Playing tug with a rope toy can even help “floss” your pet’s teeth.
Check out this helpful video from the AVMA about the tools and tricks for caring for your pet’s dental health at home.
Tips for Home Dental Care
Regularly brushing your pet’s teeth is the most effective thing you can do between dental cleanings to keep your pet’s teeth and gums healthy, and may even prolong the period between required dental cleanings. It’s not easy to brush your pet’s teeth every day (I know from experience), but even brushing 2-3 times per week can make a huge difference.
- Start a routine when your pet is young. We don’t always have our dogs and cats as puppies and kittens, but starting a dental care routine as soon as you become their owner is important. You can always start later as well, but will likely face more resistance from your pet.
- Start your routine slowly. Buying a toothbrush and pet toothpaste at the local pet supply store and immediately attempting to start brushing your pet’s teeth can be frustrating for you and scary for your pet. For both dogs and cats try to start small and work your way up to a full brushing over weeks or months. Here are some helpful steps from Petco to get you started:
- Let your pet get accustomed to the toothpaste by allowing them to lick it off of your finger
- Let your pet check out the toothbrush/finger brush and give them plenty of treats to encourage a good association
- Massage your pet’s teeth and gums with your finger to get them used to the feeling, both with and without the toothpaste
- Put toothpaste on the toothbrush/finger brush and brush just one tooth or a couple of teeth
- Slowly work your way up to more teeth and longer brushing
- Feed your pet a healthy, well-balanced diet. We know that your pet’s overall health begins with a good diet, but did you know that many dental health issues are caused by malnutrition? Work with your veterinarian to address your pet’s nutrition and develop a healthy eating plan. Consider feeding a VOCH (Veterinary Oral Health Council) approved pet food. Some pet food brands offer specifically formulated dental care foods designed to help reduce plaque and tartar build-up.
- Offer your pet dental treats and chews. There are many brands of dental treats and chews out there. Try to find brands that are VOHC-Approved, as those have been scientifically proven to help reduce tartar build-up. There are many types of chews for both dogs and cats that are designed to help care for teeth while indulging your pet in some quality entertainment. Be careful with chews (like bones or antlers) that are hard to bend or break easily, as those can potentially result in fractured or broken teeth. While treats and chews cannot replace regular brushing, they can be a great addition to an oral health routine, and lots of fun for your pets!