Do you brush your pets teeth regularly? Oral hygiene for pets is often overlooked, but Canine Assistants explains why its a critical component of proper pet care.

An affectionate nuzzle from your dog is a cherished encounter unless bad breath leaves you gasping for air! Halitosis is a common problem in pets that disrupts our relationship with them and threatens their overall health. But bad breath is merely the first sign of potential trouble. The American Veterinary Dental Society says that 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats have signs of oral disease by age 3. When gums become inflamed, the blood vessels can act as portals for bacteria, traveling to the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys.

The most common form of oral disease in dogs and cats is periodontal disease, beginning as plaque and gingivitis and ending in tooth loss. In early stages you may notice reddened edges of gums and a yellow film on your pets teeth indicating the need for a veterinary dental cleaning. The gum edges become inflamed when plaque collects under the gum along with bacteria, food and tartar. The professional cleaning not only scrubs the teeth, but more importantly, reaches under the gum line helping to prevent periodontal disease. An annual dental visit also allows an inspection of the entire mouth, checking for unusual growths, loose or broken teeth, abnormal wear, and other important conditions.

Fortunately, simply brushing your pets teeth is an extremely effective way to prevent periodontal disease and tooth loss. And just as with humans, the more you brush the more good you accomplish. Daily brushing is recommended for maximum benefit.

Dental chews work to effectively clean the teeth of plaque and tartar.

Avoid using human toothbrushes and toothpastes because they are different from the pet variety. Human brushes tend to be too hard and may lead to resistance to brushing. Human toothpastes foam too extensively and, since your pet will swallow most of it, it may cause vomiting. Its best for your dog or cat to not ingest concentrated amounts of fluoride on a daily basis.

While brushing is the ultimate in oral preventative care, there are also other options available. Oral rinses and water bowl additives can help reduce the bacterial population in the mouth. Dental chews work to clean the teeth of plaque and tartar, and may even activate enzymes in the mouth to fight bacteria. Numerous toys are designed to stimulate gums. There are even prescription foods developed to clean the teeth of pets with chronic dental disease. All of these interventions are excellent additions to daily brushing.

As a word of caution, avoid dental chews and toys for larger dogs that are harder than their teeth. Large dogs have enough bite pressure to actually fracture their own teeth when chewing on hard objects. Although it’s not usually an issue with smaller dogs, fractured teeth are more common than periodontal disease in large dogs and may require extensive oral surgery to remove. Hard bones, deer antlers, cattle hooves and other similar rigid chews often do more harm than good.

The techniques and products now available for home oral care and prevention make maintaining optimum pet health easier than ever. The use of daily brushing and other dental aids, along with an annual cleaning and exam, will ensure your pets health for a lifetime.

Acclimating your pet to tooth brushing

Help your pet get used to having his teeth brushed with steps to avoid stress. Once your pet is comfortable with each step, you may move on to the next, but plan on spending at least a few days working through the process.

  1. Spend one minute with your pets chin resting on your hand as you scratch him lightly on the muzzle with your other hand. Follow with a treat.
  2. Spend 15 seconds gently moving his lips, then follow with a treat. Increase the amount of time to 1 minute in 15-second intervals.
  3. Dip your finger or a fingertip toothbrush in some peanut butter or spray cheese and run your finger over his gums and teeth for 15 seconds. He should naturally open his mouth for you during this step. If not, use something tastier to coat your finger or fingertip brush. Follow with a treat. Increase to 2 minutes in 15-second intervals.
  4. Introduce the brush and toothpaste to your pet briefly for 15 seconds, then follow with a treat. Increase to 2 minutes in 15-second intervals.
  5. Enjoy your pets amazing oral hygiene!

Dr. Kent Bruner, D.V.M., is the Managing Director and Veterinary Services Coordinator for Canine Assistants, a Georgia-based service dog school. He is a graduate of Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine and has spent several years in private practice.