Many of us brush our teeth at least twice a day and gargle. We book semi-annual visits to the dentist for professional exams and cleanings. We would not even consider going a week without brushing our teeth — yuck!
Sadly, that’s not the case for our pets. Dogs and cats lack thumbs to brush their own teeth or dial appointments with a veterinarian. Without our intervention, they are at serious risk for developing gum disease, plaque and calculus buildup. Unchecked, they can incur oral tumors, require tooth extractions. Infections can spread to the lungs, heart, liver and kidneys and cause life-threatening conditions, including diabetes, strokes and kidney disease. Delays for treatment for any of the above can take a big bite out of your wallet.
Symptoms of oral pain include:
• Bad breath
• Appearing hungry then backing away from the food bowl
• Dropping food
• Eating slowly
• Pawing at the face
• Weight loss
• Failing to groom
• Bloody saliva
Every February is Pet Dental Month. If your pet does require professional dental care, this is the ideal time to book an appointment, because many veterinarians tend to offer discounts up to 20 to 25 percent for dental cleanings. You save a little money and your pet will have kissable breath!
For the health sake of your pet, I hope you vow to begin a regular at-home dental hygiene regiment today.
I offer these tips:
• Look and sniff. Examine your pet’s mouth daily. Report any swellings, bleeding or sores to your veterinarian promptly. It may help you avoid a costly tooth extraction.
• Monitor mealtimes. Pets who eat slower than usual, suddenly spill kibble on the floor or back away from the bowl may be experiencing oral pain. Again, our pets can’t tell us where or why they hurt. The best pet parents are true pet detectives — always on the hunt to spot anything out of the ordinary in their pets.
• Shop smartly. Look for pet food, dental toys, treats, oral gels, toothpastes and toothbrushes that carry the VOHC seal of acceptance. VOHC stands for the Veterinary Oral Health Council, comprised of veterinary dentists who regularly evaluate dental items and determine which products meet their standards. To find which dental items merit being on this list, please go to http://www.vohc.org/accepted_
• Introduce the toothbrush. Let him lick a moist treat off the toothbrush. Once he’s accustomed to the “treat,” slide the toothbrush inside the pocket between the outside gums and the inside of the cheek. Concentrate brushing on those outer surfaces. Don’t forget to praise your pet and reward him afterward with his favorite treat.
• Treat your pet to daily brushings. Only use toothpaste, toothbrushes and finger brushes made for pets. Never use a dog toothpaste on your cat to risk a toxic reaction.
• Go with Plan B: If your dog or cat won’t let you mess with his mouth, you can still minimize the accumulation of tartar with dental mouth rinses, gels and water additives. Check with your veterinarian for the one best suited for your pet.
Remember, doggy breath — even in your cat — should never be dismissed or ignored. Make the daily brushing a fun event for you and your pet. By investing a few minutes each day addressing your pet’s dental needs, you can help prolong his health and his life.
Know the Dangers of Anesthesia-free Dental Cleanings
You may have seen promotions for “anesthesia-free” dental cleanings, which promise to clean a pet’s teeth while he is awake. Skip this option, advises Jean Joo, DVM, veterinary internist at Tufts VETS (Veterinary Emergency Treatment & Specialties) center in Walpole, Mass., who has completed a residency in dental and oral surgery.
“Awake dental cleanings are not good options and can even be dangerous,” Dr. Joo says.
Adds veterinary dental specialist John R. Lewis, VMD, of University of Pennsylvania’s Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital, “No self-respecting dog or cat will let you do a good job of cleaning under the gum line while awake. In addition, you can’t see the other half of the tooth without dental radiographs.”
Anesthesia-free dental cleanings usually involve using a hand scaler in the mouth of an awake animal, Dr. Joo says. Hand scalers are excellent when used appropriately, but their sharp points and edges can damage gums if not careful, especially if the cat or dog jerks while his teeth are scaled. Only the superficial tartar (calculus) is removed. The tartar lurking deep below the gum line is left behind.
“It’s the calculus under the gum line, the part we can’t see easily, that is the major culprit in dental disease,” Dr. Joo says. “Even though the teeth can look nice and clean with the superficial cleaning done with the hand scaler, it does not mean the teeth and gums are actually healthy.”
Dental x-rays are crucial to evaluate areas below the gum line, report veterinary dentists. Professional veterinary dental cleanings always include a comprehensive oral evaluation in which every tooth as well as the gums, palate, cheek and lips, bony prominences, tonsils, pharynx and other areas are routinely assessed using special instruments. X-ray findings are recorded for future monitoring.
Dr. Joo once had an older toy poodle patient whose teeth were scaled monthly by a groomer. Her teeth looked pretty and clean. “But when we actually examined the teeth and gums under anesthesia, we found very severe dental disease,” she says. “I ended up extracting 16 teeth.”
By Sarah Zumhofe