Dogs and cats don’t have the benefit of brushing their teeth like humans do. The only things standing in the way of significant tartar build-up and dental disease in our pets are dental chews, bones, and hard kibble. These options can help mechanically break down tartar but are still no match for daily teeth brushing. If your dog (or almost every cat) doesn’t enjoy chewing, they have no defense against tartar buildup. While not every dog or cat will allow you to brush their teeth, we will discuss how to properly brush your pet’s teeth (in addition to other alternative options) and the effects of dental disease.
Without brushing, food and bacteria build up along your pet’s gumline. These bacteria accumulate and forms a sticky film called plaque. This plaque then hardens into a calculus called tartar. Tartar buildup leads to inflammation and irritation of the gums called gingivitis. With gingivitis, gums can become swollen and bleed. As tartar travels up underneath the gumline, the gums can become infected (this is called periodontitis or periodontal disease).
Periodontal disease means “disease around the teeth” and includes infection and/or inflammation of the gums, jawbone, and ligaments holding the teeth in place. Periodontal disease is graded on a scale from 1 (gingivitis) to 4 (severe). Periodontal disease results in receding gums and bone loss, and if left untreated, can eventually lead to tooth decay or tooth loss. This leads to chronic pain and discomfort for your pet. Periodontal disease cause can cause pain and has systemic side effects. Bacteria underneath the gumline can be absorbed into the bloodstream and cause issues with your pet’s heart, kidneys, and liver.
Your pet’s dental health is an important aspect of their overall health. Teeth and gums should be checked at least once yearly by your veterinarian to be evaluated for early signs of dental disease. Signs of dental disease are:
Not wanting to eat hard kibble or chew on hard toys
Mobile or loose teeth
Extra or retained puppy or kitten teeth
Becoming “head shy” or not wanting you to pet their face
Swelling below the eyes or along the muzzle or mouth
Redness along the gumline or bleeding gums
Any oral pain
If you see any of these signs, have your pet examined by a veterinarian.
If you can’t brush your pet’s teeth on a regular basis, look for other dental products to help maintain your pet’s oral health. Pet products with the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval are great options. Products not approved by VOHC may be too hard or splinter too easily - these are things like deer antlers and actual bones. Items like this can actually lead to tooth fractures. If it sounds like your dog is breaking their teeth when they are chewing on something hard, they probably are.
Some examples of VOHC-approved dental chews for dogs are Greenies, C.E.T. chews, OraVet chews, and WHIMZEEs.
If you cannot brush your pet’s teeth (or sometimes even if you can) and plaque and tartar build-up and gingivitis and periodontal disease set in, your veterinarian may recommend a dental procedure. This involves a thorough dental cleaning, x-rays, polishing, and (often) a fluoride treatment.
Veterinary dentistry requires anesthesia. While this may sound scary and expensive it is the only safe way to thoroughly clean your pet’s teeth. Dentistry requires sharp instruments to clean teeth, loud vibrating ultrasonic scalers to vibrate away tartar and plaque, and full mouth x-rays to evaluate what is happening below the gumline. Pets would not hold still for all of this awake. Your pet will be comfortably asleep, pain-free and stress-free while undergoing their dental procedure. Some pet stores and groomers offer non-anesthetic dentistry. Unfortunately, you cannot properly clean an animal’s teeth with sharp instruments while they are awake. Non-anesthetic dentistry is often very stressful for your pet as multiple people are restraining them to get the cleaning done. Additionally, non-anesthetic dentistry does not allow for cleaning up under the gums and x-rays are not able to be performed. As much as 33% of periodontal disease can be missed without taking good dental x-rays.
Anesthesia has come a long way and is now made as safe as possible. Bloodwork to look at your pet’s liver and kidney function will need to be performed prior to anesthesia. Your veterinarian will carefully evaluate bloodwork and make sure your pet can handle anesthesia and a dental procedure. A trained veterinary professional will continuously monitor your pet’s vital signs throughout the duration of the procedure. Dentistry is typically an outpatient procedure and most pets go home the same day (although they may still be a little loopy or sleepy for the remainder of the day).
Brushing a dog or cat’s teeth takes time to master and is somewhat dependent on your pet’s personality. Some pets will take to brushing very easily while others will simply not allow it. Take it slow and make brushing a positive experience for you and your pet. Make sure your pet is in a good, relaxed mood, and give them lots of love, attention, and treats.
Teeth brushing is a habituation process. Start by first simply placing your index finger along your pet’s gumline in all four corners of their mouth (upper left, upper right, lower left, lower right). Praise them and give them treats if they allow you to do this. Do this until your pet is fully comfortable with what you are doing. It may be weeks or even a month until they are comfortable. Then, begin to massage your dog’s gums with your finger. After your pet accepts gum massages, you can then use a finger toothbrush while massaging your pet’s gums. Next, you can get a dog or cat toothbrush and actually start brushing your pet’s teeth. Pet toothbrushes are special - they have softer bristles and are a unique shape that fits animal mouths better. Lastly, you can get dog or cat toothpaste to brush with. Pet toothpaste comes in appealing flavors like peanut butter or chicken. Brushing your pet’s teeth on a daily basis is recommended. If you only brush once a week or less, tooth brushing is not really going to do much for plaque and tartar build-up.