Why is At-Home Dental Care Important?
At-home care of your pet’s teeth can greatly reduce the onset and severity of periodontal disease, the most common disease seen in dogs and cats over the age of three. Periodontal disease is caused by chronic inflammation initiated by the immune system in response to a build-up of plaque and bacteria. This chronic inflammatory process negatively affects the structures of the surrounding tooth, including the periodontal ligament and alveolar bone. It also increases the risk of tooth decay, tooth loss, fractures, abscesses and infections. Luckily, periodontal disease is preventable!
Brushing Your Pet’s Teeth
Picking a Toothbrush and Toothpaste
The most effective at-home prevention of periodontal disease is brushing your pet’s teeth. The first thing you’ll need to do is purchase a toothbrush and toothpaste. I recommend using a toothbrush designed for dogs and cats, as the angled brush head is designed to make brushing easier and more effective. There are a variety of different size brush heads and handle lengths available. Another option is finger brushes made of flexible silicone. I recommend whichever brush you find most comfortable using.
There are a variety of different flavored toothpastes available for both dogs and cats. I recommend putting a tad of toothpaste on your finger and allowing your pet to try it. It’s best to test out flavors and choose one that your pet likes, however, there will be some pets that are uninterested no matter the flavor. I recommend picking a toothpaste that has the same or similar flavor as your pet’s food or treats. All three of my dogs seem to really enjoy the taste of peanut butter flavored toothpaste. I highly advise against using human toothpaste as it’s not intended to be swallowed and can cause stomach upset. Also, some human toothpastes contain toxic ingredients to pets, specifically xylitol.
Just as dentists recommend we humans brush our teeth twice a day, the same advice goes for our pets. I understand that for most people brushing your pet’s teeth twice a day may seem overwhelming and unrealistic. I believe that if we want to make a permanent change to our life routine it should be manageable and realistic. Brushing your pet’s teeth three times a week is the minimum amount considered to still be effective at preventing periodontal disease. Plan ahead. Set aside time to brush your pet’s teeth that isn’t going to interfere with your schedule. Stay consistent with the time and place as this will help make the transition for you and your pet smoother.
Ease Into It
The entire process of brushing your pet’s teeth may be too overwhelming for them to handle in the beginning. Break it down. At first you may want to just try opening their mouth and touching their gums. How do they react? Some pets will tolerate this more than others. Continue to do this for a couple of minutes and repeat each day at your scheduled time until your pet feels more comfortable. Do not attempt to brush your pet’s teeth if they are showing signs of aggression and you do not feel you can do so safely. There are other preventative measures that you can utilize. The safety of you and your pet is always the number one priority. Let your pet taste the toothpaste. Put a small amount of toothpaste on the toothbrush and see if they will lick it off of the toothbrush. If they do, it may be a good idea to do this a couple of times before moving on. Once you get to the step of brushing, don’t feel the need to brush all the teeth right away. It’s much better to slowly ease into the process rather than force it as this will help minimize the risk of them associating teeth brushing with fear and discomfort.
Before positioning, make sure you have everything you need ready. My list includes: a toothbrush, toothpaste, cup of room temperature water, tissues and treats. I wet the head of the brush before brushing to soften the bristles and to rinse as needed. Brushing your pet’s teeth can get a little messy, so I like to have a couple of tissues accessible to clean their face. The treats are for afterwards; positive reinforcement for a job well done.
Depending on your pet’s personality and willingness to sit still, you may want to have someone help hold the first couple of times until you get the hang of brushing. If you do not have someone to help hold, you can utilize a corner or wall in the house to minimize your pet’s ability to back away.
Once in position, apply a small amount of toothpaste to the toothbrush. Raise your pet’s upper lip with your non-dominant hand while holding the toothbrush in the other at a 45 degree angle against the outer surface of their premolars and molars (the large cheek teeth). It’s best to start here as these teeth quickly accumulate plaque and tartar. Move the toothbrush in small circular motions around the gum line. I re-apply toothpaste before moving on to the bottom teeth. To effectively brush the bottom teeth, you will need to open your pet’s mouth. This can be achieved by gently tilting their head back while holding onto their upper jaw and raising their upper lip with your free hand. Be careful not to overextend their neck. Do not panic if your pet’s gums bleed. Bleeding gums is a sign of gingivitis and should decrease as your pet’s oral hygiene improves. If there is an overwhelming amount of blood or the bleeding does not stop, speak to your veterinarian immediately. Also, let your veterinarian know if you notice any wiggly teeth while brushing. Make sure to thoroughly clean the toothbrush with hot water afterwards.
After brushing your pet’s teeth provide reassurance immediately afterwards with verbal praise and treats.
Additional At-Home Dental Care
Dental Treats, Diets and Toys
There are a variety of dental treats available for both cats and dogs. Make sure to look for the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval on the bag.
There are a variety of dental products on the market that claim to improve your pet’s oral health. When deciding what product to buy, look for the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval on the packaging. This seal means that the product has been tested and proven effective at controlling plaque and/or tartar.
Before the Veterinary Oral Health Council, manufacturers were reaching out to veterinary professionals for product endorsement, but they lacked scientific research supporting their claims of safety and effectiveness.
The Veterinary Oral Health Council does not conduct research, however, they create pre-screening examination requirements and a standardized protocol that manufacturers must follow in their clinical trials. The manufacturers must then submit their research to the Council for review. A minimum of two trials are required to ensure repeatability of results. The seal is awarded in two claim categories as either helps control tartar or helps control plaque (or both). To be awarded the seal, “a minimum of 15% reduction in the test group in either trial, and a minimum mean reduction of 20% in the test groups in the two trials.” (VOHC.org)
A product without a VOHC seal is not necessarily ineffective and they may have research backing their claims. The benefit of the seal is that you know immediately that it is a high quality effective product that has been supported by clinical trials and reviewed by veterinary dental professionals.
It’s important to feed your pet a high quality, nutritious food as it leads to an overall longer and healthier life. Look for the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement indicating the food is complete and balanced.