How can you tell if your pet is experiencing dental problems? We might expect our dogs and cats to stop eating if they are experiencing dental pain, infections, fractures or other types of dental disease; unfortunately, this is rarely the case. A pet may have difficulty eating in advanced cases of dental disease, but even then they will often swallow their food whole rather than actually stop eating. So, what other signs can we watch for?
It is important to periodically check your pet’s teeth for problems. If you are regularly brushing your animal’s teeth, this is a great time to quickly examine the teeth and gums for any changes. You may see tartar (brown material covering teeth), gingivitis (red gums above teeth), broken teeth (a tooth with a missing section or crack across it), gum recession (a tooth’s root may be exposed or you may see a section of gum missing near a tooth), swelling or discharge near a tooth, foul breath or lumps present in the mouth. You may notice your pet is only chewing on one side of his or her mouth, or there may be issues with dropping food. Or, a pet may have an easier time eating soft food rather than dry food or hard treats. If you do see any problems, an appointment can be made with your veterinarian for further assessment and to discuss treatment options.
Dental disease can be prevented or slowed with a number of options. It is best to start prevention early, ideally with puppies and kittens, or when a pet is first bought or adopted. “Now” is the next best time. Tooth brushing is the best method to prevent plaque and tartar build-up. Many dogs and cats can be trained to accept tooth brushing. The pet first needs to become comfortable with having his or her mouth handled. This should be done on a daily basis for short periods (a few seconds to a minute); afterwards, positive reinforcement should be given. This can be a favourite treat, toy, verbal praise etc to encourage your pet.
Once your pet is comfortable with having his or her mouth touched, you can start touching the teeth. Once this is accepted, a soft brush can be introduced. This can be a pet toothbrush, toddler brush or finger brush; you can choose based on what your pet tolerates the most, as well as what fits best into the mouth. Toothpaste can be used, but is not essential. If you find your pet likes toothpaste, it can be used. If it is more of a hassle, it is best not to bother with it.
You can encourage your pet to lick the brush, and start introducing the brush into his or her mouth. Start touching the teeth with a brush (only a couple of teeth at a time to start). You should build up to using the brush all around the pet’s mouth. When the pet is comfortable, you can start brushing the teeth. You can use a back-and-forth motion along the gum lines, focusing on the outside area of all teeth. Make sure to get all the way to the back of the mouth (especially on the top jaw, as this is where many dental problems are found).
You will notice that the bottom back teeth are covered by the upper teeth when your pet’s mouth is closed. You can wait until the pet opens his or her mouth to brush the bottom teeth, or angle your brush upwards to brush those teeth as well as possible. The inside area of the teeth is a harder section to reach, and most pets do not have as much tartar build-up here. If you are able, you can reach into the mouth to reach these teeth; however, it is less useful than brushing the outside areas for most pets.
If a pet will not tolerate a tooth brush, dental wipes could be used as a substitute. There are also a variety of other options for pets that resist tooth brushing. There include: dental diets, dental treats and water additives. It is a common misconception that all dry food helps the teeth; many dry foods crumble with any pressure, and will not help to remove plaque and tartar from teeth.
Dental diets, usually only available through your veterinary clinic, are made to be large enough and strong enough to scrape the teeth as the pet chews. They also include enzymes that can break down plaque and reduce tartar accumulation. They will be labeled specifically as “dental” food; if you would like a diet recommendation, please ask your veterinarian.
Dental treats are another option. As with dental diets, they should be specifically labeled as “dental” or to “reduce plaque and tartar”. They are usually designed to scrape the teeth during chewing, and many also include enzymes to break down plaque or tartar. It is important to avoid excessive treats however, as this can lead to weight gain and an unbalanced diet. It is also best to avoid overly hard treats; pets can crack or break their teeth from chewing certain types. Your veterinarian can help assist you in choosing appropriate treats.
Another resource is www.vohc.org. VOHC stands for “Veterinary Oral Health Council”, and includes information on various products that have been proven to help reduce plaque and tartar and improve pet’s dental health care. Products that have been tested and shown to meet these guidelines will have a VOHC stamp on their labels.
Finally, there is the option of using a water additive. These are typically sold as concentrates and diluted with regular water. They are typically designed to reduce plaque build-up. Depending on the product, they may be used for dogs, cats or both.
Regular check-ups with your veterinarian are also important to assess your pet’s teeth, as well as to recommend various treatments or home care options. Many pets will also need periodic dental cleanings to help keep their teeth healthy. These will be done under general anesthetic, as the majority of dental problems occur underneath the gums and are not reached during an “anesthesia-free” dental (not to mention the stress of using these instruments while a pet is awake). Your veterinarian can discuss your pet’s individual needs and best treatment plan during an examination.
Dr. J. Liggett