February may be National Pet Dental Health Month, but don’t forget that your pet’s teeth need some love the other 11 months of the year, too! Creating and sticking to a home care routine is an important part of keeping your pet’s mouth healthy, both before and after a professional cleaning.
Dental disease starts with plaque buildup, which causes inflammation of the gums around the base of the teeth (gingivitis). This is a continuous source of pain for your pet and if left untreated, will ultimately lead to periodontal disease with infection, bone loss, and tooth loss. In addition, dental disease often leads to poor general health, including liver, kidney, and heart disorders. Regular brushing can help keep all these problems at bay—and if done correctly, extend time between professional cleanings and be a bonding experience for you and your pet.
Ready to get started? Follow these steps.
Visit Your Veterinarian
Before you pick up that toothbrush, you’ll want to be sure there aren’t any dental issues that need professional attention first. During your pet’s dental exam, your veterinarian will check your pet’s mouth for signs of disease, such as loose or broken teeth, red or bleeding gums, tartar buildup, and bad breath.
In cats, your veterinarian will also look for signs of tooth resorption, a disease that gradually erodes the tooth’s structure. This condition is painful for your cat and any affected teeth should be extracted.
In addition, your veterinarian will want to know about any signs of dental disease or changes in behavior you may have noticed at home, including:
- Inability to chew hard food
- Excessive drooling (with or without blood)
- Pawing at or rubbing the muzzle or mouth
- Difficulty opening or closing the mouth
Depending on the severity of your pet’s dental disease, your veterinarian may recommend an anesthetized professional cleaning before starting a home care routine.
This procedure allows your veterinarian to examine each tooth carefully, assess the health of your pet’s teeth below the gum line with dental X-rays, remove plaque and tartar above and below the gum line, and perform any necessary extractions.
Early stages of dental disease associated with mild plaque and gingivitis can usually be treated with consistent brushing at home.
Just like humans, pets need plaque regularly removed from their teeth to avoid dental disease. Daily brushing is the single best way to prevent plaque buildup before it turns into tartar and leads to other serious problems.
While it may sound daunting, brushing your pet’s teeth can be an easy and enjoyable task for both of you if you are prepared and approach the process with positivity and patience.
Before you get started, you will need:
- A washcloth or gauze squares
- A soft-bristled, angled pet toothbrush or rubber finger brush
- Pet-safe toothpaste
Keep in mind that human toothpaste should never be used on pets as it contains ingredients that should not be swallowed. In addition, many human toothpastes also contain xylitol and fluoride, which are toxic to pets.
First, it is important to familiarize your pet with having his gums and teeth touched. At a time when your pet is calm and relaxed, gently slide your finger under the lip to rub the teeth and gums, focusing on the outer surfaces of the canine and cheek teeth located under the upper lip. Only do as much as your pet will allow and be sure to reward him with a treat.
Once your pet is accustomed to this, you can try the same exercise using a washcloth or gauze square to gently scrub the teeth. Keep these sessions short, positive, and rewarding. Most importantly, don’t rush—it may take a week or two to get your pet completely comfortable with the process.
Now, you’re ready to introduce the toothbrush. Wet the bristles and gently brush each side using several short, back and forth motions. Start with the canine and cheek teeth first, as these are the places plaque tends to build up most and the easiest to reach.
Finally, add toothpaste. Put a little bit on your finger and allow your pet to lick it off, or swipe a small amount across his teeth to get him used to the taste. Find a flavor your pet enjoys and when you are ready, add some to the toothbrush. Push the toothpaste down in between the bristles and brush as you did before, gradually increasing the time spent on each tooth. Of course, don’t forget to reward your pet when you are done!
Are There Alternatives?
While daily brushing is ideal, there are other ways you can help ward off plaque between dental cleanings if your pet objects to your attempts or you find it too difficult to keep up with a regular routine. If you can’t brush, try these ideas or ask your veterinarian for other recommendations.
Try a Dental Diet
Hard, dry food can actually help remove plaque from your pet’s teeth. In fact, several specialized diets have been approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) to help reduce tartar buildup and keep teeth healthy between professional cleanings.
According to PetMD, “These foods are required to be balanced, with the same nutrient content as regular foods, but with the additional formulations that make them capable of cleaning teeth. Most hard kibble and treat products that are made for dental diets are larger in size, with an airy, fibrous texture that breaks up easily so that the edges of the kibble, in effect, scrub at the surfaces of the teeth as the animal chews. Some foods also have an added coating to reduce dental plaque.”
Let Your Pet’s Water Do the Work
Water additives, as well as oral gels and sprays, can reduce the bacterial count in the mouth and help improve your pet’s breath.
Give Him Something to Chew On
Got a super chewer? While this habit isn’t exactly great for your shoes, it may benefit your pet’s teeth. In addition to rawhide chews and edible dental treats, many dog and cat toys include rubber nubs, netting, or other safe abrasive materials that help work plaque and tartar off your pet’s teeth. However, be careful not to offer any objects harder than your pet’s teeth—such as bones or hooves—as these may cause dental fractures.
Wipe Out Plaque
If your pet will allow you to touch his teeth but isn’t a fan of the toothbrush, you may find some middle ground with single-use dental wipes, which are simply rubbed across the teeth to remove plaque.