Root Of The Problem

By Amy Winter

January 18, 2008 5 min read


Give more than lip service to pets' dental health

By Amy Winter

Copley News Service

Most pet owners aren't told to look inside their pets' mouths. Since pets have a difficult time informing an owner of tooth pain, many dental problems occur due to plague and tartar buildup.

A healthy mouth should smell sweet, according to veterinarian Kate Knutson, who spends most her time practicing animal dentistry. Bad breath, or "doggy breath," is a sign of dental disease. Eighty-five percent of adult pets have some type of periodontal disease, according to Virbac Animal Health. The effects in both dogs and cats include pain, tooth loss, gingivitis (infected gums), and spreading of harmful bacteria into the bloodstream to other organs.

Home brushing can decrease the amount of bacteria in a pet's mouth. Veterinarian Scott McKay, a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, recommends early dental care to make it more of an enjoyable experience for your pet. Start by coating your finger with beef broth; it allows the pet to become familiar with someone touching its gums and teeth. Then try to wrap your finger with a gauze pad and dip it in flavored broth. Scrub and rub on the gum line.

Once this becomes a common practice, attempt to use a soft-bristled brush, according to McKay. Lift the lip to access the teeth. Brushing can eliminate food particles, clean the teeth and toughen the gums. Start with a finger-brush if needed. It doesn't remove as many food particles on the gum line, but can be a transition tool when it comes to training the pet.

"Keep the sessions short and positive," says McKay.

Veterinarian John Lewis, president of American Veterinary Dental Society and assistant professor in dentistry and oral surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, recommends using toothpaste that contains enzymes to help dissolve food as a treat. Dogs will think the flavored toothpaste is food and will try to chew on the toothbrush, preventing the preferred areas from being reached. Instead, put the toothpaste on the dog's tongue following brushing. Do not use human toothpaste; pets shouldn't swallow fluoride.

Veterinarian T.J. Dunn, director of, says only about one out of 50 owners brushes a pet's teeth daily. Even brushing twice a week can have a beneficial effect.

"Owner compliance with brushing seems to be difficult even when I recommend it," says Dunn. "Dogs don't like it and neither do owners."

Knutson suggests training the owner in order for teeth cleanings to occur daily. Pets with healthy mouths will enjoy getting their teeth cleaned. Once you are familiar with your pet's mouth, you can feel whether a tooth is loose.

Other dental care products are available if daily brushing isn't an option. Virbac Animal Health offers a line of home dental care products called C.E.T. Oral hygiene chews (beef hide for dogs and freeze-dried fish for cats) control plaque and can be given once a day as a treat on non-brushing days. Oral hygiene rinse and gel is applied between the cheek and gum to reach the difficult areas. Choose hard food over soft food. Soft food can stick to pets' teeth causing decay, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Pets need to be seen by a veterinarian regularly, and owners should continue home care to decrease the amount of plague and tartar. The period between professional cleanings is defined on a case-to-case basis, according to Lewis. Some pets are more susceptible to periodontal disease due to diet, genetics, ability to self-clean after eating, crowding of teeth, or unknown factors.

Examining the mouth is part of the annual vet exam. If the dog or cat appears to have signs of disease, the vet can clean your pet's teeth. Knutson says the exam is done under general anesthesia. She looks for abnormalities, charts each tooth and takes full mouth X-rays. Cleaning the teeth includes an ultrasonic scalar to scrap off tartar and calcified plague, and a polisher to shine the teeth. Pets that need additional dental work, such as surgical extractions, root canals, periodontal work or orthodontics, are referred to a vet specializing in dentistry.

"I use the dental procedures as a screening diagnostic tool for cancer and a way to keep pets healthy," says Knutson.

Pet owners seem to be paying more attention to pet dentistry. Infections in the mouth can harm the overall health of an animal. Dunn says that once an infection is eliminated, owners see a difference in their pets.

"With regular dental care, pets will be healthier, feel better and live longer," says Dunn.

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