Funny headline, right? But so true. The American Dental Association says that for people, the cornerstone of a healthy mouth is regular teeth-brushing (twice daily) and flossing (once daily). Dental disease is mostly preventable with daily cleaning and regular visits to the dentist. Poor mouth hygiene has been linked to serious medical issues, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and pneumonia. These health conditions are especially concerning for older adults. If we do a good job of keeping our teeth clean, we can expect them to last our entire lifetime. So what’s the situation in our pets?
The same principles of mouth health apply to dogs and cats. In a perfect world, our pets would be brushing their teeth and seeing the veterinary dentist every 6 months. Since teeth brushing and routine dental care is more complicated than that for pets, we have a far different scenario. Just how common is periodontal (gum) disease in dogs and cats? According to the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC), 70-80% of dogs and cats have some level of periodontal disease by the age of three. This process begins when plaque (created by the action of bacteria in the mouth) attaches to the surface of the teeth. When plaque accumulates below the gum line, the real (and invisible) problems begin. Over time, the gum becomes inflamed and eventually the gum and bone around the teeth erode. Similarly to people, dogs and cats with periodontal disease are at greater risk for diseases affecting the heart, kidneys, and liver.
I mentioned that dental care for dogs and cats is complicated. First, our furry friends don’t necessarily understand why it’s good for them to sit still to have their teeth cleaned. Second, when our tooth hurts, we tell our dentist exactly where the pain is located. Dogs and cats experience the same pain but aren’t able to say exactly where it hurts. Dogs and cats tend to hide signs of pain and illness, so we may not know the full extent of the problem. What this means is that in order to thoroughly evaluate and address mouth issues, pets need to be placed under general anesthesia. How often your pet will need an evaluation and cleaning under anesthesia depends on the individual, but your veterinarian is the person who can determine this, based on exam of your pet’s mouth during an annual visit. What can you do to make sure your pet’s mouth is healthy and pain-free?
Things to Watch For:
- Bad odor in pet’s mouth
- Loose teeth or you find a tooth your (adult) dog or cat has lost
- Teeth with mild or large amount of tartar (appears tan, brown, even green in color)
- Problems picking up food or keeping food in mouth
- Bleeding from the mouth
- Pet doesn’t want you to touch his/her mouth
- Decrease in food or water consumption
Things to Do at Home:
- Brush or rub teeth daily using pet toothbrush or piece of gauze, ideally with a small amount of pet toothpaste
- Be patient and gentle with your dog or cat, starting with the teeth under the upper lip
- If over time there is a certain area your pet will not allow you to work on, have a vet exam to determine if there is a tooth issue in this area
- Dental diets: there are several on the market that have been shown in studies to decrease the deposition of tartar for both dogs and cats.
- For dogs: chew treats or appropriately sized raw bones can help. Some chew treats have an anti-tartar ingredient on them.
To better evaluate products for dental health used in dogs and cats, the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) maintains a list of products. Look for the VOHC seal of approval on products you purchase for your pet.
Since this is National Pet Dental Health month, my challenge to you is to take a peek at your pet’s mouth. Do you notice any of the red flags listed above? If so, make an appointment with your vet. Many clinics offer special deals during February for dental procedures. Here’s to happy healthy mouths!