How to take care of your pet's teeth
Every day, Lenin Villamizar-Martinez makes sure that he and his dog, Lola, get plenty of exercise and do one more thing: brush their teeth.
"It's been scientifically demonstrated that brushing dogs' and cats' teeth daily is the best practice," said Villamizar-Martinez, an assistant professor of dentistry and oral surgery at North Carolina State University. "Just like in humans, when you go every morning and brush your teeth, you remove dental plaque."
Dental plaque forms in 24 hours and hardens into tartar in about three days, which is "why daily home care to remove plaque is critical," says dental veterinarian Brook A. Niemiec, a co-author of the 2020 World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) Global Dental Guidelines.
Left unchecked, tartar can cause gum disease and lead to other health problems in cats and dogs, ranging from tooth loss to heart and kidney disease. By age 1, about 90% of all dogs have some gum disease, and about 70% of cats have it by age 3, according to studies cited in the 2020 WSAVA Guidelines.
Some dogs — mostly small breeds, as well as Greyhounds and Cavalier King Charles spaniels — are especially prone to dental problems, Niemiec says. That is why dogs weighing less 10 pounds should have their teeth professionally cleaned by age 1, he says. Without that and daily brushing, he says "it is not unusual for small dogs to lose all their teeth by age 4."
Dental veterinarians recommend introducing daily tooth brushing in the first few months of life. Always be gentle — never force a pet to brush their teeth — and make it a game, says Villamizar-Martinez.
His dog, Lola, was 5 when he adopted her. She already had some dental problems. So first, he used gauze moistened with tap water to rub her teeth and gums daily for two to three weeks. Next, he let her sniff the dog toothpaste. Then he slowly introduced a toothbrush over a couple of weeks. Now, he says, she loves having her teeth brushed every morning.
There are many types of pet toothbrushes, but Jennifer Tjepkema, a veterinary dentist at the Animal Dental Center in Annapolis, Md., recommends just using a soft-bristle children's toothbrush for pets. Every three months, she lets her children choose new toothbrushes for themselves and their dogs, "which usually have superheroes on them," she says.
Skip the electric toothbrush, Waterpik and human toothpaste for pets. Tjepkema says vibration from the electric toothbrush may scare them. Pets can also inhale water into their lungs from the Waterpik, which can also cause gum damage in dogs and cats. Human toothpaste can be toxic for pets.
What can also help thwart dental problems are chews, toys and supplements. The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) lists pet dental products for dogs and cats whose manufacturers have submitted studies showing safety and effectiveness before the VOHC awards its seal of approval.
The latest veterinary dental guidelines also recommend annual professional cleaning, which must be done under general anesthesia by a vet. Dental X-rays are also taken to measure the jaw bone and look for cysts and tumors. The cost is about $1,400. Most pet insurance does not cover it.
Small-breed dogs may need this professional exam and cleaning annually, beginning at 1 to 2 years of age. Larger breeds may not need this annual cleaning until they are older, but should be examined annually by a vet, veterinary dental experts say.
Five signs that veterinary dentists say could mean that your pet may have dental problems:
— Bad breath.
— Discolored teeth or teeth covered in tartar.
— Loose or missing teeth.
— Drooling, dropping food from the mouth, reduced appetite or refusal to eat.
— Favoring one side of the mouth when eating or chewing.