Did you know that over 80 percent of adult dogs and cats have some form of dental disease? The good news is that this does not need to happen to your pet. Preventive dental care, both at home and from your veterinarian, can help to ward off dental disease. Preventing dental infections and injuries to the teeth can ensure that your pet eats comfortably, doesn’t knock you down with bad breath, and will have a happy, pain-free mouth throughout life.
Here are seven ways to take care of your pet’s mouth before dental disease begins. These methods may also help you notice oral problems before they become serious.
- Accustom pets to having their mouth and teeth examined and touched. Over the long term, this can help make veterinary examinations less stressful for them. With time and patience, you will be able to lift their lip and examine their mouth. Start in a quiet setting with your pet in a comfortable position. Using what’s called touch gradient—maintaining continuous hands-on contact while slowly working toward the mouth—gently lift the lip. Offer praise and a treat each time you do so. As you progress, lift the lip a bit longer and look at the teeth. Rewarding pets with a favorite activity after each session is a great way to teach them to willingly accept the oral examination. If pets are reluctant for you to examine their mouth, they may have a painful dental issue that your veterinarian should see.
- Examine teeth and gums at least weekly. A quick examination should take only 5 to 10 seconds on each side. It is important to remember that there are teeth way back in the mouth. When you look at your pet’s mouth, teeth should be white and gums pink. Tartar buildup on teeth often has a chalky or brownish color. Examine teeth for chips, breaks, or unusual lesions and look for masses or growths. If gums are red and swollen or you notice a chipped or broken tooth, lesion, or growth, your pet needs to have a professional dental cleaning to prevent more severe infection.
- Tooth brushing. Plaque and tartar accumulate on dog and cat teeth, much as it does on our teeth. Tooth brushing is the gold standard for removal of disease-causing plaque. It takes time to teach pets to accept tooth brushing. Begin by letting your pet lick pet toothpaste from your finger. Then use the touch gradient and move toward the mouth. Gently hold the muzzle with one hand and insert your finger with pet toothpaste (don’t use toothpaste made for humans) between the cheek and teeth and “brush” the teeth. Reward pets with a favorite treat, praise, or game each time they accept brushing. Do this every day for a week to ensure your pet learns that it’s okay. Once the pet accepts your finger, you can begin using a toothbrush introduced slowly over several days. You only need to brush the front of the teeth.
- Dental wipes. While tooth brushing is the gold standard, it’s not always easy, especially if you are starting later in a pet’s life. Use of an oral wipe is a good option for prevention of plaque. Choose one with no taste or odor that may be unpleasant for the pet. Introduce wipes to pets in the same way you would start tooth brushing, but instead of toothpaste, wrap the wipe around your finger and gently rub the teeth. Wiping the teeth should become a daily bonding experience with your pet, followed by a treat, toy, or fun activity.
- Chew toys. While your dog will love you for a bone, his teeth may not. Canine jaws do not shift side to side like human jaws; therefore, dogs often fracture teeth when they bite down on a bone or hard toy. These fractured teeth hurt and can lead to infections and abscesses if left untreated. A good rule of thumb when choosing a chew toy is that if you can’t easily bend it with your hands or if you wouldn’t want to be hit in the knee with it, don’t give it to your pet. Playing fetch with a tennis ball is a great way to bond with your pet but put the ball away when done. The tennis ball’s rough surface can wear away tooth enamel over time. Dogs who continuously chew on tennis balls often have severely worn teeth that become painful.
- Dental diets and treats. Most dogs and cats swallow kibble whole, getting no dental benefit. Even if pets chew kibble, most dry diets are so hard that pieces break apart when bitten and offer no help. Dental diets are designed to solve this problem. The kibble is larger and softer, comprising a fiber matrix that allows the tooth to penetrate the kibble, thus wiping plaque off the tooth. Your veterinarian can recommend a good dental diet for your pet. Dental treats may contain enzymes that help to clean teeth or they may be filled with enzymatic pet toothpaste that works as the pet chews. You should understand how treats work to reduce plaque or tartar and check to see if they have been tested for safety and efficacy. The Veterinary Oral Health Council recognizes products that meet pre-set standards of plaque and calculus (tartar) retardation in dogs and cats. Products awarded the VOHC Seal of Acceptance have been proven to work based on scientific studies and protocols.
- Regular professional dental examinations and cleanings. Just as we see our dentist regularly to ensure our dental health, our pets also need regular dental examinations and cleanings. A Comprehensive Oral Health Assessment and Treatment, or COHAT, allows the veterinarian to examine the mouth and each tooth, take full dental radiographs to determine if there is a problem below the gumline, thoroughly clean and polish teeth, and provide necessary treatment. Annual COHATs can help to prevent dental problems or ensure that they are found and treated early to keep pets healthy and happy.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Mary is a charter member of the Academy of Veterinary Dental Technicians and received her Veterinary Technician Specialty in Dentistry in June 2006. She worked in research for over 28 years, specializing in products aimed at improving oral health of companion animals and continues to work with companies to evaluate the efficacy of their products. Mary is the founder and president of Beyond the Crown Veterinary Education, a veterinary dental consulting service. She was named NAVTA Veterinary Technician of the Year in 2020 and received the AVDT’s Excellence in Dentistry Education award in 2019. Mary is a speaker and wet lab instructor at numerous state and national conferences. She lives on a small farm near Lawrence, Kansas, with her husband, Doug, and has two sons and three grandchildren.