Meat Toothpaste: Dental care can add as much as five years to your pet’s life.
Chloe, a five-year-old cocker spaniel, has a happy smile—but it wasn’t always that way. When her owner, Brenda, noticed Chloe’s lack of energy and an odor coming from her mouth, she took her to see Dr. Kandra Jones at Mandarin Veterinary Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. Dr. Jones discovered a severe case of tartar buildup which, through a series of events, turned into a gum infection. The gum infection led to a bone infection, which resulted in tumor-like swelling. Through a combination of laser and traditional surgery, Dr. Jones was able to remove the infected cells, and with a regimen of antibiotics, ensured the infection did not return. Chloe’s mouth has been pronounced healthy and clean, and Brenda agrees. “Chloe’s teeth are in great shape, now. She’s really just a different dog. She has so much energy.” But the surgeries could have been avoided with just a little dental care.
Dental care is a little known yet absolutely necessary component of caring for your pets. By the age of three, some 80 percent of all dogs and 70 percent of all cats show signs of dental disease, which can lead to the more serious problems of heart, lung, and kidney disease. Fido’s dog breath and Tabby’s tuna breath aren’t something to be ignored—they are probably indicative of an oral problem, and the sooner you have it treated by your veterinarian (and learn to care for it yourself), the sooner you and your pet can smile proudly.
The stages and faces of oral disease
Periodontal disease—an infection of the tissue surrounding the teeth—takes hold in progressive stages. Plaque and tartar form naturally when food remains in the cracks and crevices of the teeth, especially at the gum line. (Because canned food tends to stick more easily to the surfaces of the teeth, it is somewhat more likely to cause plaque than dry food. But any food will cause problems if the teeth are never cleaned.) At this stage the plaque is still soft, and brushing or chewing hard food and toys can dislodge it. If left to spread, plaque can lead to gingivitis—an inflammation of the gums—causing them to become red and swollen and to bleed easily.
Plaque soon hardens into tartar that forms a wedge separating the tooth from the gum. At this point plaque can grow below the gum line, causing more damage, and professional cleaning is needed to help manage it. If the plaque and tartar buildup continue unchecked, pus can form at the root of the tooth and the tooth becomes impacted. In the final stages of periodontal disease, the tissues surrounding the tooth are killed, the bony socket holding the tooth in erodes, and the tooth falls out. This is a very painful process for your four-legged friend, but the problems can be averted before they even start.
Put my fingers where?
Your veterinarian should perform a dental exam along with a puppy or kitten’s routine booster vaccines at two, three, and four months old, and annually thereafter. In between exams, you are responsible for maintaining your pet’s dental health—but the process is not as scary as it may seem. By starting slowly and gradually introducing your pet to the concept of teeth cleaning, the two of you can even learn to enjoy your sessions together.
The first step is to determine your pet’s current state of mouth cleanliness (see “Identifying dental disease”). A healthy mouth will have clean, smooth, white teeth surrounded by firm, pink gum tissue. Can’t stand the smell to get close enough to look? You may want to take Tabby to your veterinarian for a thorough cleaning—starting with a clean slate, so to speak, can make your daily cleanings a bit easier.
Brush-a, brush-a, brush-a
Try to clean your pet’s teeth and gums once a day, if possible, and preferably after he eats. The most important area to focus on is the gum line, where bacteria and food mix to form plaque. To customize a fearful Fido or timid Tabby to the idea of dental care, start slowly and gradually. Dip a finger into beef bouillon (for Fido) or tuna water (for Tabby), and gently rub along the gums and teeth. Focusing on the gum line, start at the front of the mouth, then move to the back upper and lower teeth and gum areas. Once your pet is okay with a little bit of touching, gradually introduce gauze over your finger, and rub the teeth and gums in a circular fashion.
When your four-legged friend can handle that, try it with a toothbrush specially designed for pets, or a very soft, ultra-sensitive toothbrush designed for people. Gradually add special dog/cat toothpaste (flavored with meat or fish), but never use people toothpaste or baking soda, as both will upset your pet’s stomach. The entire process should only take a minute or two. If Fido or Tabby continue to resist, try gently wrapping them in a large bath towel with only the head out. Above all, avoid overstraining and keep sessions short and positive. With plenty of praise and reassurance, your dental sessions can bring the two of you closer—a closeness that won’t be marred by the perils of dog breath.
Cleaning the inside surfaces of the teeth
- Place hand over the muzzle from the top
- Gently squeeze and push the lips on one side between the back teeth (to keep mouth open)
- Pull head back gently so mouth opens
- Brush teeth on opposite side
- Repeat for other side
Identifying dental disease (without opening the mouth!)
If pet jerks away or seems to be in pain, consider having your veterinarian perform the exam.
- Select a quiet location
- Be gentle and patient
- For back teeth on the left: place index finger of left hand on top of muzzle and place left thumb below bottom jaw to prevent him from opening his mouth
- Use right thumb and index finger to lift the lips
- Pay attention to the large teeth in back where tartar and plaque collect
- Try pressing on each tooth, if pet permits, to check for looseness
- Move hands to front of mouth; separate upper, lower lips with thumbs and index finger—look for red line where gum joins tooth (an indication of infection, gingivitis, or periodontal disease)
- Repeat procedure to examine right back teeth
Signs of periodontal disease
- Yellow/brownish colored teeth
- Swollen, red, bleeding gums
- Persistent bad breath
- Loose teeth, loss of teeth
- Pus between gums and teeth
- Broken teeth
- Unusual growth in mouth
- Reluctance to play with chew toys or drink cold water
- Yellow-brown crust of tartar at gum line
- Receded/eroded gums
- Infected teeth