Pick and chews: Proper dental care important for animals, too

Posted: Sunday, April 25, 2004

Dental care for your dog is as important as dental care of your own teeth. Just like humans, dogs are vulnerable to periodontal or gum disease, infections and tooth problems.

In smaller breeds, such as the maltese, shihtzus, dachshunds and chihuahuas, dental hygiene is particularly important. These breeds have a higher risk of developing tooth problems because their teeth are crowded in their small mouths, but regardless of size, all dogs and even cats can suffer from dental disease.

Bad breath is often an initial indicator of dental disease. If not addressed in the early stages, plaque and bacteria can build up. Dental diseases can progress, causing the gums to recede, bleeding to occur from the mouth, decreased appetite and eventually tooth loss.

Also, dental disease can lead to far more serious problems elsewhere in the body. Bacteria in the mouth can gain access to the blood stream. There, circulating throughout the body, the bacteria can affect vital organs, possibly leading up to major life-threatening illnesses such as kidney, liver or heart failure.

Keeping a pet's teeth and gums clean and healthy is the best way to prevent dental problems, and this requires regular home care combined with routine visits to the veterinarian.

Dental care at home may include many things. Feeding a high-quality dry dog food is a good way to prevent problems. Through the mechanical action of chewing dry food, plaque and tartar can be naturally scraped off a pet's teeth.

Nylabones, Greenies, Kongs and other chew toys all can work as dental exercisers that assist in reducing plaque. Some veterinarians recommend offering raw or boiled meat bones to dogs on a regular basis, but only for brief periods of time. The chewing of tough cartilage and bone scrapes teeth clean. However, over time bones also may cause tooth wear and even fractures, so they should be used cautiously.

Unfortunately, these items alone are rarely enough to treat dental disease, so tooth brushing which is perhaps the best form of dental hygiene should also be a regular procedure for pets. There are many products on the market that can be purchased such as finger tip brushes, human-style tooth brushes and dental gels and pastes for pets.

Human toothpaste is not recommended, and neither is baking soda and salt, since this can cause problems in pets. Brushing can be daily with pets that are willing, or two to three times a week for pets that are less cooperative.

The important thing to remember is to start early. Puppies and kittens can quickly learn to accept home dental care as part of their daily routine. However, older animals also can learn and benefit from the same processes. Starting a pet on tooth brushing may be difficult at first, because this is a very new sensation for them. Take it slowly. With the right attitude and gentle persuasion, most pets eventually will learn at least to tolerate the procedure.

Start by handling the mouth gently, using a finger to rub the gum line. Next, wrap a piece of gauze around the finger, dip it into water and gently scrub the teeth along the gum line. Then, after a few weeks, gradually progress to using special animal toothpaste on either an animal toothbrush or a soft children's toothbrush.

When first starting tooth brushing, just lift the upper lip on one side to expose the outer surfaces of some teeth and brush them by making gentle circling motions from the gums toward the ends of the teeth.

Keep the initial brushing periods short, especially if a pet is highly resistant. It's important to make brushing a positive experience from the start. Try to end on a pleasant note and never push a pet to the point of stress, fear or total aggravation. If you manage to clean only one tooth before your pet has had enough, that's fine.

Even if you don't get far in the process, always reward your pet. Give praise and a treat immediately after each attempt at a dental hygiene session. Also, think about performing dental care before things pets find enjoyable such as walks or dinner since pets may quickly make the association between the two and give their cooperation.

Once successful at brushing some easy-to-reach teeth, go for the complete set. One way to open your dog's mouth is to put one hand across the muzzle and gently squeeze inward behind the upper canines. Tilt the head back and hold it steady. But remember, the less you restrain your pet the better, and remember to focus on brief, productive bouts of mouth opening and tooth brushing.

No matter how cooperative pets are with home dental care, they should still routinely be seen by a veterinarian. Dental exams can ensure puppies and kittens have strong and healthy teeth, and that they are not retaining any "milk" teeth as the permanent ones come in.

Middle-aged and senior pets also should be seen by a veterinarian at least once a year. As these animals age, veterinarians may want to see them more than once a year or may prescribe antibiotics to prevent or control infections.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at clar ion@alaska.net.

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