Pet Dental Health

It is estimated that 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have some form of periodontal disease. Aside from being the most common disease in pets, periodontal disease is also the most overlooked by owners, for many reasons. Most of us do not routinely lift our pet’s lips and examine their teeth and gums. Pets also do not show obvious signs of mouth pain. Despite severe dental disease, loose teeth or infection they continue to eat and do not cry out in pain like we would. Many will show dental pain as changes in routine behavior, lethargy, and shyness about the head. Bad breath is a common sign of periodontal disease but is often excused as normal dog or cat breath.

If you lift your pets’ lips and see yellow teeth, tartar, or red, swollen or bleeding gums, it is time for a dental cleaning. Brushing alone will not correct this. Many owners are afraid of dental cleanings for their pets because it requires anesthesia. The fact is, modern anesthetics are very safe and effective. The risk of anesthetic death in healthy dogs and cats is 0.05% and 0.1%, respectively. This is much less than the health risks to the heart and internal organs associated with chronic infection and dental disease.

The frequency your pet will need a professional cleaning will vary with their breed, oral architecture, chewing habits, and frequency of home dental care. A pet receiving routine homecare requires less professional dental cleanings over their lifetime. The gold standard of routine home dental care is brushing. Ideally once a day, or at least every other day. For pets that will not allow brushing, consider other dental health products such as chew toys, dental chews and dental diets. Products approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) can be found at The VOHC give their seal of approval to products that have met strict standards for plaque and tartar control. Never use antlers or cow hooves since these products are associated with an increased incidence of tooth fracture.

If your pet’s teeth do not look normal or if you notice any of the symptoms above, contact your veterinarian for an exam and a professional cleaning. Many non-veterinary professionals offer “dental cleanings” in the awake dog. It is important to know that a safe, proper and effective dental cleaning cannot be performed in an awake pet.

Once your pet has had a cleaning, you may want to try adding brushing into their daily routine. Brushing your pet’s teeth daily can be simple to do and usually takes only a minute or two each day, if they are properly trained. It is best to start when your pet is young but with time and patience an older pet can be taught to enjoy, or at least tolerate, having their teeth brushed.

  • When your pet is quiet, start by slowly massaging around the muzzle then lift and gently massage the gums to get him accustomed to you working around his mouth. Go slow and be patient, do not push your pet to do anything that he is not comfortable doing. Caution: If your pet is overly nervous or cannot be trusted not to bite, do not proceed with brushing. Your personal safety is paramount.
  • Once your pet is comfortable with having his gums massaged, place a flavored toothpaste on your finger to introduce the taste. Pet toothpaste typically comes in poultry, malt or fish flavor.
  • Next, slowly introduce a pet toothbrush with the toothpaste on it. Many veterinarians and pet stores carry pet toothbrushes that specifically designed for their mouth. If you do not have a pet toothbrush, a soft child's toothbrush will work.
  • Gently brush in a circular motion concentrating on the junction between the gums and teeth. Pay special attention to the back teeth and the large canines where tartar tends to accumulate the most. If your pet has some gingivitis, brushing may initially cause a small amount of bleeding. This is common and not an initial cause for concern.
  • Only brush the outside of the teeth next to the lips. Most pets will not allow you to brush the inside surface of the teeth near the tongue. There is no need to rinse.
  • Reward your pet with petting, affection, a treat or play time afterwards.
  • If your pet will not accept the feel of a toothbrush, consider using a finger brush (a rubber finger thimble with bristles) or a soft gauze wrapped around your finger.
  • Never use human toothpaste for your pets. They do not like the flavor and human toothpaste contains fluoride which can be toxic if swallowed in large amounts, or if small amounts are swallowed over time.

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