Routine dental care is something that we do for ourselves, but when it comes to our pets it is an area of care we often overlook. Problems with teeth and gums can mean big trouble for your cat or dog — causing them discomfort, chewing difficulties, pain and infection. Such infections can deplete a pet of their energy, lead to malnutrition and disease and even shorten your pet’s life.
“Dental care, both in home and veterinary, is very important in our companion animals. As in humans, prevention is best; and disease can cause bad breath, pain and systemic issues,” said Dr. Sabina Amen, a veterinarian who works with the South Suburban Humane Society.
There are things that can be done:
“Daily teeth brushing is ideal, but even less frequent brushing can be beneficial,” said Amen. “To avoid inadvertent discomfort, it may be best to start this after all deciduous teeth are shed. Several types of soft bristle toothbrushes as well as flavored toothpastes are available. Human tooth paste should not be used. The American Veterinary Medical Association has an excellent instructional video titled ‘How to Brush Your Pet’s Teeth.’ ”
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Though treats and toys can aid in reducing the development of plaque, they should not be considered a replacement for brushing. “Ideally, you should brush teeth every day. Nothing works as good as brushing,” said Dr. Rex Bailey, a veterinarian with Michigan City Animal Hospital. “I tell people four to five times a week minimum.”
Bailey said that although some owners take their dog to a groomer for brushing, if you’re not already brushing them four to five times a week, it’s probably not going to be very effective.
Lack of brushing can cause buildup of tartar and lead to tooth loss and periodontal disease. To further protect your pet’s teeth, look for treats or chews that aim to prevent bad breath and tartar build-up. “The Veterinary Oral Health Council is the best place to go to find the right treats,” said Bailey.
“Other aids include dental chews, dental toys, rope toys, dental treats, dental foods and water additives. The Veterinary Oral Health Council lists many approved products,” said Amen. “Cavities are less common in dogs, but broken teeth are not. Attempt to only let your pet chew on acceptable items.”
Professional teeth cleanings are something that owners should consider incorporating into a pet’s annual care. Good dental maintenance is important to a dog’s overall health. “We see dogs that come in that have elevated liver enzymes and after a cleaning, it is better,” said Bailey.
Cleanings need to be done in a veterinarian’s office because of the need for anesthesia. A cleaning done by a groomer while a dog is awake can result in clean teeth, but doesn’t allow for getting under the gum line, said Bailey. “You should discuss cleaning with your vet on a yearly basis,” he said “We should be doing a lot more preventive care.”
“By age 3, most pets will have some degree of dental disease. Some assessment can be made during a routine veterinary visit, but most evaluations and procedures require anesthesia,” said Amen. “These include radiographs, probing, mobility assessments, cleanings and extractions. More advanced procedures such as root canals are referred to a Board Certified Veterinary Dentist.”
Bailey also suggests that X-rays be done regularly, preferably a CT version, to help spot any dental problems. “It’s extremely important to get X-rays because a lot of infection happens below the gum line,” he said.
X-rays can also be critical in detecting dental issues in cats. “Sometimes if a cat isn’t having trouble chewing, it might not be painful in the owner’s mind,” said Bailey. “Nasal discharge and sneezing can be signs of issues, as well as redness or odor. With cats, if we end up taking out bad teeth, it’s common to get comments from owners about behavior changes where the cats are playing more.”
Regular dental maintenance and keeping an eye out for discomfort can lead to a longer, happier life for your four-legged friend. “We know that taking care of dogs’ and cats’ teeth can extend their life by a couple of years. It’s mostly because of infection, which can cause heart valve disease, liver disease and kidney disease,” said Bailey.