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Pet Dental Care – A Guide to Pet Oral Health

on July 1, 2015
Posted in Cats

It’s 3 a.m. Pet Parent–do you know where your best friend is? Speculation doesn’t last very long. You roll over to be greeted by a smell that’s beyond description—bad breath emanating from Tuna’s or Bandit’s mouth. You know that your fur-suited kid needs a vet. Perhaps you’ve known this for an embarrassingly long time, yet you’ve avoided facing dental problems in cats or dental problems in dogs because you’re in denial. Bad pet owner! It’s time to change your ways and take pet dental care seriously. As your mouth-breather blissfully snoozes beside your pillow, make a mental note to call the vet first thing in the morning. Sure, you’ve said it before, but this time, draw a line in the litterbox sand!

How Dental Problems in Cats and Dogs Get Started

Teeth that make such quick work of big rawhide bones, chunky cat treats and a wide selection of food, toys and the occasional pair of slippers, are as subject to decay, infection and gum disease as are human teeth. What can start as a small infection, injury, break or cut has the potential to turn into a major health issue, particularly if your cat’s or dog’s teeth are old and haven’t been cleaned. Further, certain illnesses trigger tooth and gum symptoms warning of a serious disease or condition.

Sure, it would be awesome if we could just get down on the floor, order our cats and dogs to roll over and relax so we could brush their teeth morning and evening, but try to remember that this is fantasy and that you’re the adult in this relationship, so the moment you suspect something untoward emanating from your pet’s mouth, follow your hunch. If you put off having a consult with your vet, your cat or dog could develop serious health issues affecting her liver, heart, and kidneys down the road. For cat owners, this is doubly troubling because kitties are more susceptible to urinary issues than dogs.

That stated, the pet market is hot, hot, hot today, so you’re going to be exposed to an infinite variety of aids that come with outrageous marketing claims. Some actually work. Others contain more hyperbole than helpful oral hygiene ingredients, so err on the side of the caution when you shop. You can’t go wrong if you study labels and find credentials like the Veterinary Oral Health Council Seal of Acceptance (VOHC). Think of this seal as extra insurance as you do all you can to keep your pet healthy and happy.

What to expect when you smell that smell…

Once your nose leads you to the Land of Suspicion, you’ll want to get a friend to act as your assistant so you can search your pet’s mouth more closely while avoiding using up all of the Band-Aids in your first aid kit. As a rule, dogs tend to be easier to handle than cats, but tell that to a big dog’s mom whose timing isn’t the best! Have your partner in crime swaddle your pet (wrap her in a large towel) and undertake an inspection, looking for broken or suspicious-looking teeth, discoloration, exposed roots, signs of bleeding, swelling, lumps and bumps (abscesses/infections/tumors/cysts) that don’t look right to you. You don’t need a pet dental care diploma hanging on your wall to spot tartar that’s above the gum line, and if looks fairly well established and hugs the gum, chances that tartar has developed below the gum line are probable.

If you notice an unusual amount of drooling or a change in the way your cat or dog chews his food, this can spell trouble. She may be having such trouble chewing, it’s easier to drop the food than continue on. In either case, it’s worth a trip to the vet, if only to be reassured that while a cleaning is called for, everything else looks dandy.

By the way, age is no indicator of periodontal and dental health. Perhaps you think that your cat or dog is simply too young to suffer periodontal disease, but you’d be wrong. Canine and feline dental health authorities agree that if Fluffy or Fang are three years old–or older—your pet may have the start of the periodontal disease, especially if there’s been no home health care like tooth brushing.

Are you guaranteed that a regular brushing routine will keep periodontal disease at bay forever? Not at this point in time—any more than the most devoted human tooth brusher can be certain they won’t have to look into that dental light in their lifetime! Time and age factor into the natural process. That stated, new pet oral health products are entering the market every day, so keep an eye on store shelves when you shop for treats. You never know what will pop up.

How to Brush a Cat’s Teeth

It’s no joke that a cat can emit caterwauling sounds you’ve never heard him utter if he’s in pain. And don’t delude yourself into thinking that you won’t be bitten by the docile kitty who shares your pillow nightly if the pain becomes intolerable. Defend against this eventuality by making oral hygiene part of your kitten’s routine at the youngest age possible. Rumor has it, some cats don’t mind having their teeth attended to if a patient and loving pet caretakers start the process early.

What to use if you’ve made a promise to do what it takes to keep dental problems in cats at bay? Thanks to the growing legions of cat owners willing to spend money on their kitties, the market has gotten pretty crowded, so you’ll have a choice of commercial cat oral care products if your goal is short-circuiting dental and periodontal issues by undertaking this care at home.

First, pick up a toothbrush made just for felines, but before you begin your home treatment, get Tuna used to the dental paste you pick out. Let him lick it off your finger to see if he’s willing to give it a chance. If he turns up his nose, try another brand or flavor. Once you’ve discovered his majesty’s fav, apply some to your finger daily to acclimate him to the process. Next, let him lick the paste off the toothbrush for a couple of days. At this point, if your gut tells you that Kitty is ready, spread the paste on the brush and move it gently across her teeth, taking breaks if she makes a fuss.

Impatient pet parents who expect this initiation into the world of cat oral care to be easy are more apt to undermine their own efforts. You might think of this as potty training children: kids don’t always please you just because you went slow and asked nicely. It can take a month or two of daily attempts to make that morning or evening brushing a habit, but if you’re diligent you’ll be rewarded. Does that mean your cat open wide every morning? Hardly. But they’re smart and know a persistent parent when they see one!

More Cat Hygiene Tips

Once upon a time, the only cat oral care supplies on pet store shelves were one or two types of toothpaste and the occasional experimental rinse. Things have changed dramatically; you may find yourself spending a long time considering brushes, flosses, pastes, rinses, devices, pills and products manufactured to deal with dental problems in cats. The contemporary pet oral hygiene market perpetually welcomes new brands and products, all competing for your dollar, so if you’re spending more time than ever gazing at pet dental care aids, know that you’re not alone.

The most often-recommended and effective non-brushing cat oral care products on the market are rinses and gels that contain chlorhexidine and they’re formulated just for domestic animals. You squirt or deposit either substance inside both cheeks and then watch your cat run in a circle as he licks and does what cats do when something they’ve never before tasted winds up in their mouths. Not every cat takes to these products, so if you’ve had brushing success and a second oral aid is greeted with expressions that shout, “No way, Dad,” count your blessings and move on.

On the other hand, if your cat takes to these cat oral care products, use them as a second line of defense against tooth and gum disease. They’re safe and effective. Chlorhexidine coats tissue and tooth surfaces and disperses the active agent throughout the mouth courtesy of all that tongue action. Is there anything else that works? A couple of inventive new notions are in works, including tartare-fighting chews that repel plaque. They clean the teeth by acting like treats and dry food: Fluffy bites down on yummy kibble and as she breaks it down with her teeth, medicinal ingredients are disbursed. Keep your eye out for these and newer hygiene products made to deal with dental problems in cats as they’re introduced.

How to Brush a Dog’s Teeth

Is there anything cuter than a Golden Retriever’s eyes when he looks at Mom and Dad knowing that he’s got them in his pocket? If you’re lucky, have patience and are willing to dedicate lots of time to initiating your dog into the practice of daily tooth brushing, you will see that trusting look in your dog’s eyes—mostly because you have shown her that you’re the model of persistence and don’t plan to quit trying! Stay optimistic and you can train your dog to submit to your tooth brushing efforts as part of your dog oral care campaign.

First stop: Your favorite shop—the one with aisle after aisle of pet products that have seduced you more than once on the premise that your pooch deserves the best of everything. Sleuth out the shelves stocked with health care products and don’t be shocked to find a variety of options awaiting your buying decision. Start with a pet-friendly toothpaste. Feel free to read brand reviews on the Internet if that’s your style, understanding that you’ll get the most unbiased ones from respected canine resources, not manufacturers eager to separate you from your money. Conflicted? Ask your vet about the best dog oral care products and go from there.

Buying a dentifrice is just the start of your effort to combat dental problems in dogs and you may have to try a couple of different flavors to see which one Fido prefers. The flavor range has grown of late—you can choose from chicken, seafood or beef-flavored toothpaste to trick your dog into thinking he’s getting food or treats. Even if your dog acts just like a human (and you’re pretty sure he is one, anyway), no human toothpaste, please. The agents in human toothpaste are harsh and can make dogs sick, so avoid them like the plague. Here’s the good news: Dogs are ever-so-much-more likely to take to tooth brushing fairly quickly, unlike cats who have great disdain for just about everything anyway.

To rid your pooch’s mouth of plaque and tartar, use a doggie toothbrush with a smear of his favorite paste and gently work from one side of his mouth to the other. If you’ve taught your kids to brush, you already have the moves down and should be a pro at dog oral care. Take the opportunity to look for irritated areas and outbreaks as you clean, and if you can only do one section before Jazz loses interest in your erstwhile efforts, make it the outsides of the cheek teeth that are just beneath the upper lip. Keep coming back. Dogs are easy.

More Dog Hygiene Tips

Unlike cat moms and dads, there are more oral care choices on the market. Dental wipes made just for dogs are becoming popular sellers at pet stores and they’re easy on whoever is stuck doing the cleaning job. You just rub these wipes on the outside of the teeth to dislodge and remove plaque and get outta there fast. Want more? Try dog oral care rinses and gels. The main ingredient in these products is chlorhexidine, a chemical agent that is dispensed easily by squeezing it into both inner mouth cheeks or rubbing gel onto the teeth directly and voila! Your dental problems in dogs get a temporary hygiene fix.

There’s more! Innovative anti-tartar chunks, rawhide and treats formulated to stop the periodontal disease in dogs plus biscuits and chews do a nice job of keeping bacteria in check but, read the package first to make sure you’re buying products formulated to remove plaque and tartar since this stuff really looks like recreational chew toys and snacks.

Does this mean you can throw caution to the wind because your dog’s a pushover and will let you do anything you like to their teeth? Not exactly. There are some no-no’s for dog parents: Avoid nylon products, dried bone and cow hooves marketed as pet dental care aids. These products could put your dog’s mouth in jeopardy because they can cause gum damage and break teeth that are vulnerable. Finally, if you’ve had zero success getting your dog to try approved dog oral care products, you can always resort to bribery! You won’t be the first pet parent on the planet to use cream cheese or peanut butter to literally and figuratively get your dog to bite.

To sleep or not to sleep, that is the question

It’s a hotly contentious issue for pet owners and you may be one of them. Your cat or dog is diagnosed with periodontal issues at a routine check-up and you’re all for a procedure that cleans those teeth to extend your pet’s life—until the subject of anesthesia is broached, at which point you have the urge to grab your buddy and flee.

Put my pet to sleep for dental surgery? I don’t think so, you say protectively. But before you allow your emotions to rule your head, know the facts.

First, can you imagine your dog or cat behaving as you do when your dentist lowers the chair and prepares to undertake a deep tissue cleaning? Of course not. Even docile animals will squirm, bite and try to escape—and this is before your vet picks up the first cleaning tool.

Sedating a pet for a tooth cleaning has become safer and easier because agents used to put cats and dogs under are carefully dispensed based on a pet’s weight, so she receives neither too much nor too little and she can be brought out of her fugue state fast if need be.

Further, complete relaxation on the part of the patient allows the vet to be efficient about her time: she’s in and she’s out as quickly as possible, so the time your pet spends “under the influence” is much shorter than it was years ago.

Is there a risk? Of course. When you have dental surgery, don’t you sign a waiver that holds harmless your dentist from risk if something goes wrong while you’re under anesthesia? There’s nothing on the market these days labeled, “For pet parents only; take one for anxiety if your cat’s in surgery,” so you’re going to have use reason over emotion in this department. Your vet loves your pet and would never take unnecessary risks. Keep that in mind.

But, I’m a fan of holistic pet dental care!

You’re not alone. Lots of pet parents are as leery of vets as they are of the human medical profession, which is why holistic pet care practices are popping up around the nation. If you’ve sought and found one to match your philosophy, he is more likely than not to recommend against anesthesia for dealing with your dog’s or cat’s dental health issues. He might just prescribe homeopathic oral health products in concert with daily brushing.

Holistic practitioners recommend oral care sprays, gels and tooth cleaning practices that are likely to slow the progress of a debilitating periodontal disease and if you’re fastidious about attending to this, that’s admirable. But there’s no substitute for a surgical procedure if you’re fighting dental problems in cats and dental problems in dogs, especially if your vet spots advanced periodontal disease.

Read also: Pet Dental Disease

Our Expert

Dr. Janice Huntingford
Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan

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