Does your dog or cat need regular dental care? Most vets say “yes.”
It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of brushing our dog’s or cat’s teeth seemed completely absurd. Since when did anyone do that?
Yet according to the American Veterinary Dental Society (AVDS), about 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats show signs of oral disease by the age of three. It starts with gingivitis, then progresses to deep holes in the pet’s teeth and bones, which can cause a lot of pain and lead to required surgery. The inflammation and infection associated with dental disease can also damage the heart, liver, and kidneys.
Fortunately, dental disease is highly preventable. Here are some options for how you can ensure your pet has strong, healthy teeth and gums for life.
Start with a Checkup
Good oral care starts with a check of your pet’s mouth. Teeth should be white, shiny, sharp and pointy. Yellow or brown teeth may signal plaque and tartar buildup. If you see purple, that may mean the tooth has inflammation at the center of it, caused by some sort of blow or trauma.
Gums should be light pink and smooth along the edges of the teeth. Red, swollen, or bleeding gums can indicate gingivitis, the beginnings of periodontal disease. Bad breath can also indicate gum disease or infection.
Before starting a new dental care routine with your pets, a regular checkup with the vet is a good idea. He or she can find any issues that may already be present and help you clear those up, so you’re starting fresh. If your dog or cat is reluctant to eat, cries out when chewing, or has missing and/or loose teeth, check with your veterinarian right away.
Start with Brushing
Talk to any vet about dental care and they’ll recommend daily brushing. Plaque can build up within a few hours and harden into tartar in just over a day, so daily brushing is the best defense. Never use human toothpaste, however, as it can make your pet sick. Choose toothpaste made specifically for your dog or cat.
In case brushing doesn’t sound like fun for you or your pet, here are some tips to make it easier:
- Start by having your pet lick the toothpaste off the brush, then slowly work the brush into her mouth and touch just the front teeth. Use lots of praise and positive feedback. Make the activity fun.
- As your pet becomes accustomed to the feel of the brush, move it farther into the mouth to clean the back teeth, too. Massage the gum as you work around your pet’s mouth, the same as you would on your own. Be gentle—if you brush too hard, you can damage the gum tissue.
- Brush at the same time every day, so it becomes part of your pet’s routine. Choose a quiet time, such as late in the evening, when your pet is more likely to be relaxed. You may want to follow each brushing session with a small dental treat as a reward.
If your pet remains resistant to the brush, try dipping a cloth in tuna juice or chicken stock, wrap that around your finger, and use that to rub the teeth gently until the pet becomes used to it. Cats especially adapt better to finger brushes, which simply fit over your finger and allow you more control.
If brushing just isn’t in the cards for you or your pet, there are options. You can find dental sprays that work similarly to toothpaste, but you have only to spray them into the pet’s mouth. There are also oral rinses that help to keep teeth and gums healthy and solutions that can be added to the pet’s drinking water. As the pet drinks the solutions repel and retard plaque and eliminate bacteria, but have no taste or texture to dissuade your pet from drinking.
The act of chewing is not only soothing for pets, but it produces saliva, which can help protect teeth. Dogs that chew actively have less plaque buildup, and some types of dental treats can significantly reduce tarter buildup and plaque.
Rawhide chews, dental chews, bones, biscuits, and chew toys can all help as long as they get your pet involved in sustained chewing. Watch out for calories, however—you may want to mix up edible treats with those that aren’t, so your pet doesn’t gradually trade cleaner teeth for a wider girth.
All dental treats aren’t made the same, however. Long-lasting ones provide the most cleansing benefits. Those with the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s (VOHC) seal of approval means they have been studied and found to provide dental benefits. Consider the size as well—if your pet can swallow it in one bite, it’s not likely going to help his teeth. In one study, increasing the diameter of the food led to a 42 percent reduction in tartar.
If your pet already has diseased or fragile teeth, they’re more likely to break on hard chews, so choose softer options.
What About Bones?
Always avoid cooked bones, as cooking changes the structure and makes bones indigestible and easily splinterable. This can lead to many problems, including broken teeth, punctured or wounded gums, choking, and bone pieces lodged in the throat or stomach.
Raw bones, on the other hand, can be very effective at limiting plaque, but in some cases they can also be dangerous. Some can cause broken teeth, and they can also be contaminated, so make sure you’re getting them from a reputable source, and supervise your dog while chewing. Feed meaty bones that are surrounded by and wrapped up in plenty of meat. Bare bones can lead to constipation, so avoid knucklebones, chicken bones, and rib bones.
Pork chop bones (that have sharp edges) can also be potentially dangerous, as they can become lodged in the throat or airway, and may cause damage in the gastrointestinal tract as well. Small dogs eating large bones are at a greater risk of having complications.
Some Homemade and Natural Options
If you’re looking for some homemade or herbal options for your pet’s dental care, here are some that may work for you. Always check with your veterinarian first to be sure each will be safe for your particular pet.
- Calendula: If your pet will allow it, dip a cotton swap into a calendula tincture and rub it over inflamed gums to help soothe dental disease.
- Cinnamon: A little cinnamon sprinkled on top of your pet’s food can help dissolve food particles. You can also make an oral rinse by mixing about 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon with 2 tablespoons of warm water and using an eyedropper to squirt the liquid in your pet’s mouth.
- Echinacea: This herb is a powerful anti-inflammatory and antibiotic, and can help fight against gingivitis. Mix with water for a mouthwash.
- Goldenseal: Mix with water for a mouthwash that reduces swelling and pain in inflamed gums. Add a little myrrh for additional antibiotic properties.
- Apples, Celery, and Carrots: If your pet will eat any of these, they will benefit from cleaner and fresher teeth. Just be sure to remove the core and seeds of the apple first, as the seeds can be poisonous to pets.
- Yogurt: The active cultures in yogurt reduce bad breath and help destroy bacteria. Add a little plain yogurt to your pet’s meal—make sure it doesn’t have any added sugars.
Do you have tips for at-home pet dental care? Please share.