February 12

Dental checks, care necessary for long-lived pets

It’s National Pet Dental Health Month…. What’s that? You think your dog’s teeth are fine? You may want to think again if it’s been more than a year since your pet had a regular checkup or a dental exam.

Just like with people, animals suffer from the effects of too much junk food and not enough dental care. You may think that brushing your cat’s teeth is stupid, but in reality it does a couple of beneficial things. First, it gets your pet used to having you check his mouth and play with his teeth, which will help you determine if there is something unusual or painful there. It also helps prevent tarter buildup, which reduces the chances for infection that can spread from the mouth to other parts of the body.

Have you ever stopped to pet an older cat when you were blown away by a bad smell? Infection in the mouth, which is more common in older animals, can give a pet breath that will stop you in your tracks. With cats, it’s made worse because the cat bathes itself with its tongue, getting that odor all over its fur. Of course, when we’ve had a cat forever, we can forgive things like a bad smell, even if it’s unpleasant. But many owners don’t know that bad odor can be eliminated, especially if it’s caught early.

Good dental care also extends the life of your beloved pet. Dental problems can begin showing up as early as three years, and according to the American Veterinary Dental Society, nearly 80 percent of pets in the U.S. do have at least one sign of dental disease by that age.

Here’s how it starts: Plaque, then tarter, builds up on the surface of the teeth. Bacteria grows in the plaque and inflames the gums. When the gums become particularly inflamed, a condition called gingivitis, the bone around the roots of the teeth starts to wear away. Teeth become loose and can fall out. Infection spreads from the gums to the heart, liver and kidneys. Eventually, the animal dies from the infection.

It seems like dental care in pets is a new fad. Why haven’t we noticed this kind of decay in pets throughout the years? Probably because our pets today have better medical care and, in many cases, better nutrition than even a generation ago. They live longer, which gives their teeth more time to decay and cause problems. The reason to keep the teeth well cared for is because it’s not that hard to do, and it’s an easy way to add more time to your pet’s life.

A brand-new study funded by IDEXX Laboratories, which makes veterinary equipment, tests and treatments for companion animals, shows that one in every eight cats that had some kind of oral disease also tested positive for feline immunodeficiency virus and/or feline leukemia virus. Both FIV and FeLV can be difficult to detect early, but because they weaken the immune system and allow infections to take root, keeping on top of the more noticeable side effect of oral disease may be a way to find and treat the viruses while they are easier to fight.

So if at this point you’re sighing and thinking, “Great. One more thing I have to do for the dog,” take heart. It’s not that tough. The first step is to make sure your pet gets an annual checkup. The veterinarian should check teeth and gum health at that exam. If it’s been longer than a year, or you think your pet may have dental issues, schedule an exam now. Your pet may need dental cleaning or tooth removal.

Then, you can talk to your vet about what dental care you need to do at home. Brushing your pet’s teeth is highly recommended, but it’s not something that every pet owner wants to do. Feeding treats and meals that help keep plaque from building up on the teeth is a good action to start with, and you can decide from there if you’ll need to include brushing as well. Remember never to use human toothpaste on your pet, because toothpaste is poisonous if swallowed. Try a soft toothbrush designed for pets that doesn’t require toothpaste, unless your vet advises you to do otherwise.

OK, you’re convinced. Now you just need to figure out how to convince your dog that he should let you brush his teeth. Start small – it isn’t something you can do all at once. Keep the teeth care sessions short and follow up with a dental chew treat. You can get your pet used to having your fingers in its mouth by using beef bouillon or tuna water. Dip your finger into the water and rub it gently over the pet’s mouth and teeth. After several sessions when your pet is comfortable, put gauze on your finger and work toward scrubbing the teeth in a circular motion. From there, you can graduate to the pet toothbrush.

Can you do this with all pets? Definitely not. Some pets are so sensitive about their mouths that they will bite and snap when you try these steps. Don’t risk a bite, but remember that moving very slowly and using rewards as positive reinforcement for good behavior does work. If you have the patience, it can pay off in better health for your pet. And if you can’t make it work with your animal, resolve to start the process for your next pet, when it is new to your household.

See also: Keep medications out of pets' reach, especially antidepressants   Q&A: Can my dog get the flu from me?