Teeth Are Important

Taking care of your pet's teeth is very important.

It’s National Pet Dental Health Month

Exercise, a quality diet, and routine vaccines are all fundamental parts of your pet’s health care regimen. The most overlooked element of pet ownership, however, can leave your beloved four-legged friend with some serious issues. February is promoted by the American Veterinary Medical Association and veterinary practices across the country as national pet dental health month. Here are some suggestions to ensure your pet continues to have good oral care and to prepare you for what to do when dental issues pop up.

Handling your pet’s mouth and teeth

To properly care for your pet’s oral hygiene, it is really important for your pet to be comfortable with you handling their mouth and teeth. This will not happen automatically, but will take some time and training. For puppies, begin by feeding super-tasty treats while touching, holding, and manipulating the mouth. Ensure the puppy is only handled for brief periods of time. Reward him while interacting with him, but remove treats at the end of the session. This way the puppy will associate the treats (positive reinforcement) with the touching of the mouth and teeth.

Remember to check your pet’s teeth. Photo courtesy of K9ology

For older or less tolerant dogs and most cats, desensitization with some high-value rewards may be necessary in order to better inspect teeth. Start off by just touching the muzzle or nose while rewarding your pet. Slowly build on the behavior by increasing the interaction for a few seconds at a time. Try lifting the lip by cupping the muzzle with your hand. Reward heavily when your pet accepts this type of interaction, and simply put the treats away and end the exercise if the animal shows resistance. The key is to practice only as long as your pet will tolerate, then build confidence based on their comfort level.

Routine Care

1. Check your pet’s teeth regularly as part of your daily grooming and training activities.

2. Provide routine preventative care by regularly brushing your pet’s teeth. That may seem like quite a task, but there are plenty of products on the market to help you out. Your veterinarian or local pet store can provide you with a toothbrush or a finger cap with bristles to brush your pet’s teeth. As with mouth handling desensitization, you want to make sure to do short, positive training exercises to get your pet used to the brush. You can use cream cheese, peanut butter, or liver pate on the brush to entice your pet to accept handling. After a couple of weeks of daily training, switch over to a pet-friendly toothpaste to clean teeth. Remember to never use human products since they can be severely toxic to pets.

3. An annual oral examination by your veterinarian will ensure you are keeping your pet on track. Your vet will look at the mouth, teeth, and gums to ensure dental issues are discovered and correct actions are taken towards treatment and prevention of oral issues.

4. The use of dental chews can help aid in the removal of tartar and plaque on your dog’s teeth. Materials of commercial chews vary from processed chew treats to abrasive plastic chews to various natural products. The most common go-to chews include bully sticks, rope toys, Nylabones, cow hooves, Greenies, and CET enzymatic rawhides.

When selecting the right chew, be sure:

  • Items are not too small and therefore a choking hazard for your pet.
  • Your pet does not become possessive of the chews, which can result in aggression issues.
  • The durability of the chew matches your dog’s chew strength and style.
  • Your dog is not intolerant to any of the ingredients of the product.
  • The material is not too hard; super dense products may fracture teeth (especially in older dogs).
  • Natural-based products do not contain glue or bleach and are made in the USA.

5. There is a great deal of debate about types and brands of dog or cat food and their influence on oral hygiene. Raw feeders will swear that a natural meat and vegetable diet with plenty of raw bones will hinder the buildup of tartar and plaque. Conventional veterinary medicine advocates that dry foods contain abrasives which allow kibble to assist in the removal of buildup and prevention of decay. Canned food is believed to be of lesser benefit to oral health, but better for the function of internal organs. The reality is, nutrition is a very personal decision. Take your pet’s diet into account when discussing the best preventative oral health steps with your veterinarian.

Common Dental Health Problems

Periodontal Disease is believed to be the most common dental issue in pets, and it’s totally preventable. The condition is caused by the interaction of bacteria and minerals in your pet’s saliva which causes a toxic buildup of plaque and tartar. In more developed cases, excess bacteria and buildup will reach below the gum line and cause infection in surrounding tissue, bone, and teeth. Inflammation of the gums (gingivitis) and deterioration of soft tissue around the bone (periodontitis) are often affiliated with periodontal disease.

There are varying degrees of severity, each requiring a different course of action for treatment. Minor to moderate cases can be aided through a routine dental cleaning performed by your veterinarian. In questionable situations your vet may want to take an x-ray to see how far the condition has progressed and if teeth require extraction. In severe cases, periodontal disease may influence more than the mouth and cause changes in the heart, liver, and kidneys of older dogs.

A tooth abscess occurs when pus collects and swells along an infected tooth. Dogs with abscessed teeth are often tender and swollen in the face. Abscesses may occur when the tooth root is infected, or result from fractures in the teeth from chewing something too hard. In some cases, periodontal disease may be the culprit. Treatment usually includes a root canal or extraction of the affected tooth. Due to the infectious nature of abscesses, the use of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication is also usually recommended.

In many cases, changes of behavior can be indicative of dental health problems. Consult with your veterinarian if you notice your pet acting abnormally. Common signs of dental issues include: bad breath; excessive drooling; loss of appetite; difficulty chewing; pawing at the mouth or face; swelling of the mouth, jaw, or face; redness and bleeding of the gums; and broken, discolored, or missing teeth. Providing your dog with dental chews, regular brushing, and professional cleanings will ensure your pet leads a happy, healthy life. Be sure to keep up with your pet’s annual exams and discuss with your vet the best course of action for any treatments to meet the needs of your individual pet.

Charlotte Wagner Harvey
About Charlotte Wagner Harvey 21 Articles
Charlotte Wagner Harvey holds a Bachelors of Science with honors in Animal Management from the University of Essex with a special interest in behavior. As a dog trainer and the owner of K9ology in Warrenton, she helps dog owners and dogs find common ground to establish a peaceful life together. Her core tenets: there are no shortcuts, it is hard, and do it right or don’t do it at all. She lives in Rappahannock County with her husband and a farm full of animals including horses, chickens, cats, and, of course, dogs.

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