February is a big month for teeth. Not only is it National Children’s Dental Health Month, it’s also Pet Dental Health Month. And this is your annual reminder to take your furry family members to the vet for a dental check-up.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says that periodontal disease is the most common pet health problem. Sadly, by the age of 2, 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have some form of periodontal disease.
Oral disease affects pets in much the same way as it does people. Neglecting preventive care can lead to pain, infections and tooth loss. Dental decay, inflammation and gum infections can also impact your pet’s overall health – causing digestive problems, bronchial infections and other problems. With regular oral hygiene and check-ups, many of these problems can be avoided.
The AVMA says that although cavities are less common in pets than in people, they can have many of the same dental problems that people can develop:
- broken teeth and roots
- periodontal disease
- abscesses or infected teeth
- cysts or tumors in the mouth
- malocclusion, or misalignment of the teeth and bite
- broken (fractured) jaw
- palate defects (such as cleft palate)
Periodontal disease is the most common dental condition in dogs and cats – by the time your pet is 3 years old, he or she will very likely have some early evidence of periodontal disease, which will worsen as your pet grows older if effective preventive measures aren’t taken. Early detection and treatment are critical, because advanced periodontal disease can cause severe problems and pain for your pet. Periodontal disease doesn’t just affect your pet’s mouth. Other health problems found in association with periodontal disease include kidney, liver, and heart muscle changes.
How do you know if your pet has a dental issue? Typical signs are excessive (for your pet) drooling, frequent pawing at their face or mouth, worse-than-usual breath, and showing signs of pain when eating harder foods. Your pet may also avoid eating crunchy foods, or may be reluctant to eat anything. Other symptoms include red and swollen gums, yellow-brown crusts of tartar along the gum lines, and bleeding or pain when the gums or mouth are touched.
Watch for behavior changes too, such as reacting with annoyance when you touch or pat your pet’s head, a sudden unwillingness to play, or strange mood changes. Trust your instincts – if you sense your pet is having a health issue, you’re almost certainly right and should seek professional help.
During a checkup, your veterinarian will examine your pet’s teeth for signs of decay, and remove tartar and plaque buildup that could otherwise lead to tooth decay and gum infections. If your pet has serious oral problems, your veterinarian may recommend a tooth extraction and prescribe medication to clear the infection.
Brushing Your Pet’s Teeth
Depending on the type of pet you have, and his or her general temperament, you may need to skip tooth brushing at home and take your pet to a pro for cleanings. Your vet probably offers tooth cleaning, or can recommend the right person for the job.
The American Veterinary Dental College does not recommend dental cleanings without anesthesia because they do not allow cleaning or inspection below the gum line, where most dental disease occurs, and can result in injury to the pet or the person performing the procedure. So vets may suggest a tooth cleaning if your pet needs other medical procedures that require anesthesia.
If your pet seems amenable to at-home oral hygiene, head to the pet supply shop and get a soft-bristled brush and toothpaste specially formulated for your dog, cat or other critter. Don’t use toothpaste intended for humans, because it’s not meant to be swallowed and your pet will want to swallow it – which can irritate your pet’s stomach. Some vets advise a daily brushing, but you may find that two or three times a week is about all that you and your pet can manage.
Start brushing your pet’s teeth early in their lives. Get them used to having your fingers in their mouth, and rub their teeth with a clean washcloth before introducing a toothbrush. When you graduate to a toothbrush, do it similarly to how you would brush your own teeth. Start in the back of the mouth and make your way up to the front of the teeth, making small circles. Ask your vet to give you a demonstration the next time you’re in the office.
It shouldn’t take more than a minute to brush your pet’s teeth, and even the smallest effort can make a big difference in their health and happiness. Talk with your veterinarian about any dental products, treats, or dental-specific diets you’re considering for your pet, or ask your veterinarian for their recommendation.