The hows and whys of keeping your pet’s teeth healthy
There is a confusing array of diets, chews and magic potions to banish away your pet’s plaque. Brushing is always the best and most proven way to keep your pets’ teeth in good condition. It is also the most time consuming and difficult of the options. Here we will discuss how dental disease occurs, how to clean the teeth, and some of the other options available if brushing is not possible.
What happens if I do nothing with my pet’s teeth and gums?
Studies have shown 70% of cats and 80% of dogs suffer some form of gum disease before they are three years old.
Early gum disease is called gingivitis, an inflammation of the gum or gingival tissue. It may progress to periodontitis, an inflammation of periodontal tissues, including the bone around the tooth (alveolar bone) and the soft tissues that anchor the tooth in the mouth. Gingivitis is reversible, and doesn’t necessarily lead to periodontitis, but it does indicate that the environment is right for irreversible dental disease to develop.
Plaque is a sticky bacterial film that constantly forms, hardening into tartar (also known as calculus). Inflammation is caused when plaque-containing pathogenic bacteria buildup on teeth. Toxins produced by the bacteria initially attack the gums, causing the gingival tissue to look red, bleed or ulcerate. If the numbers of bacteria overwhelm the defences of local tissues, periodontitis occurs. The animal’s own immune defences can even be part of the problem. White blood cells overloaded with infectious material burst, releasing harmful bacterial toxins and enzymes causing destruction of tissue and loosening of teeth.
Research into human periodontitis has demonstrated that oral bacteria can reach the bloodstream, affecting the heart and the liver, and there is evidence that they can also be a factor in kidney disease.
According to pet supplement specialist Pettura, gum disease is five times more common in dogs than humans, as dogs have a more alkaline mouth, promoting plaque formation.
What signs may my pet show?
Your pet may have smelly breath and bleeding gums. They may have pain when eating, or chewing toys. It is important to remember that even with the most severe cases of dental disease pets can often continue to eat, showing only subtle signs such as changes in character and lack of energy.
How can I prevent this happening to my pet?
Prevention is best, but time-consuming. Once a cycle of destruction is in place, it’s hard to salvage the teeth. Several dentals throughout your pet’s lifetime may be needed, often requiring long general anaesthetics which will carry a risk. This treatment can become costly.
Physically removing plaque with a toothbrush is the best option in dogs. It can be attempted in cats, but many cats will not tolerate it, and other methods of dental hygiene must be sought.
How often should I clean my pet’s teeth?
Studies show that brushing once a day is optimal. If you brush every other day then gingivitis will still develop. Interestingly, if you brush once a week it has no effect at all.
But what do I do if my dog won’t let me clean their teeth?
Ideally, start teaching your dog from a young age. Like us, they have baby teeth, so brushing at this age is simply to get them accustomed to the idea.
Pet toothpaste is meat flavoured to aid enjoyment. Start by rubbing your pet’s gums and teeth with the paste. It may take several weeks for them to get used to this before moving to a plastic finger brush. Brush using a circular motion, taking care to reach the back teeth. Eventually, you can try a pet toothbrush. Choose an appropriately sized one for your pet and again use circular movements. Build up the process gradually, so your pet gets used to it, aiming eventually to brush for around 2 minutes a day. Never use toothpaste which is made for humans – not only will the mint flavour be less palatable to your dog, maybe even painful, but it also often contains xylitol which is poisonous to dogs.
If you’d like more advice, come and see one of our nursing team who can give you a demo and answer any questions you may have about dental care!
My pet won’t let me brush, what do I do?
Be patient and take things slow. Stop and go back a step if your pet becomes upset. Reward brushing with a treat, such as grooming, fussing, or a small food treat. Many pets will grow to tolerate and often enjoy the brushing process.
If it becomes an impossible and stressful task then we may have to accept that some dental disease is inevitable.
Other strategies are not proven to be as effective as cleaning, but still play a role, and some benefits may be seen.
Chews and toys
Research suggests that dogs with access to chewing materials have less calculus accumulation, gingivitis and periodontitis than those that do not. The longer they chew the better. If your pet eats the chew quickly, then it defeats the purpose. At that point, it becomes a treat, not a chew, and is ineffective. There are many toys specifically designed to clean teeth as they chew. Ask our team about which dental chews and toys are best.
Chlorhexidine-based products aid in the removal of plaque, have antibacterial properties and can be used alone if the pet detests tooth brushing. Because of its unpleasant taste we sometimes use this as a course of treatment rather than a long-term treatment preventative. Watch out for human mouthwashes though – they often contain xylitol which is toxic to pets.
Some dry foods have specially formulated kibbles to maximise dental contact time and are scientifically proven. Others have additives to help control plaque, but their efficacy is uncertain. This may be a good option for cats, where cleaning is more challenging. Speak to our team about our dental diets.
There are liquids and powders that can be added to your pet’s water to control plaque. Some research in the human field has been performed, but more studies are needed to prove effectiveness. Its ease of use may, however, be appealing.
There is no evidence that feeding bones either prevents or controls periodontal disease. We see regular evidence that bones can cause serious damage to animals eating them, including fractured teeth, so they aren’t recommended.
If you are concerned about your pet’s dental health, make an appointment to see one of our vets for a check up.