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Brushing Pets' Teeth Improves Health and Saves Money

Updated on October 8, 2015
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Brushing the dog's or cat's teeth is not as widespread as it should be, but pet owners are gradually getting there.

Why, just a generation ago people would have rolled their eyes and scoffed at the notion. Today, it’s a different story.

More and more veterinarians are promoting a program of oral hygiene at home, more and more pet supply stores are devoting more and more space to oral care in pets, and more and more pet owners are getting on the band wagon.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and other professional organizations, statistics show that by age three, 80% of dogs and 70% of cats show signs of periodontal disease.

The main culprits: canned food and table scraps.

Since dogs tend to get more table scraps than cats, it stands to reason that their incidents of periodontal disease would be higher, as well.

There's some debate as to the efficacy of dry food in scraping the teeth. Most agree that there is some mild abrasive action to the crowns of the teeth, which helps reduce plaque, but the main value of dry food, and biscuits, is that they promote salivation, which helps wash material down the throat.

There are some "dental diets" on the market that envelope larger, oddly shaped kibble in a fiber matrix, forcing the dog to crunch through it.

If one were to describe it, you might say it's something akin to a piece of kibble encased in a little shredded wheat biscuit.

When a dog or cat eats wet food, the flow of saliva is not sufficiently stimulated and the food easily sticks to their teeth, forming plaque, which hardens into tartar.

The hazards of periodontal disease in dogs and cats are many; from tooth loss to heart and kidney problems as bacteria from the disease travel the circulatory system and are picked up by those organs. Over time they become diseased resulting in serious health problems.

You can significantly improve your dogs' and cats' dental health by having your vet do an annual dental exam, by providing home maintenance, and by watching for signs of periodontal disease.

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Home maintenance generally includes feeding primarily un-moistened dry pet food and hard treats, and brushing their teeth a few times a week.

The tooth brushing needn't be the wrestling match one might envision. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Introduced properly, most pets accept tooth brushing readily.

You can introduce the concept by getting your fingers inside the pet's mouth during times of play or affection.

In a short time he'll be used to this and you can then wrap gauze or a face cloth around your finger and wipe the surfaces of the teeth.

Once this has become comfortable to your pet, you can introduce a toothbrush and add pet toothpaste.

Don't use human toothpaste, because it can irritate the stomach lining in pets, often resulting in a gastric episode you'd prefer to avoid.

Human toothpaste is a cleanser. You brush it on and rinse it off.

Pet toothpaste is enzymatic (enzymes are molecules that consume organic matter).

You brush it on and leave it there so it can go to work. If your pet doesn't have the patience for a full brushing, that's OK.

Get a few teeth now, a few teeth later. If you can get the entire mouth a few times a week, you'll really be helping your pet.

You should become familiar with symptoms of periodontal disease.

The first tip off, usually, is bad breath. Dogs don't inherently have "doggy breath."

They'll have temporary halitosis, perhaps, from eating garbage or stool, but chronic bad breath should sound the alarm.

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Other signs are discolored teeth, red, swollen or bleeding gums, tilting the head when eating, dropping food from the mouth, and refusing dry food or biscuits. Be aware, too, that problems often are above or below the gum line where you can't see them. That's one of the reasons for annual dental exams by your vet.

Next time you're at your pet supply store don't scoff at the pet dental products. Pick some up. You can spare your pet a lot of pain and discomfort. And at the same time, you can spare your budget a lot of pain and discomfort.

To have your own teeth cleaned is a pretty simple matter, but to have your dog’s or cat’s teeth cleaned properly is a pretty big deal and can cost you a few hundred bucks. Under general anesthesia, veterinarians will use a sharp instrument called a scaler to clean the teeth, including under the gums.

I read one source that encouraged owners to buy their own dental scaler and perform the procedure at home, citing the risks involved with anesthesia. Do what you want, but I consider that advice to be foolhardy and irresponsible.

Your pet won’t sit still for the procedure so there’s the very real possibility of causing an injury to him. Not only that, but there’s the near certainty that you will inflict discomfort, if not outright pain, on your pet and the near certainty that you’ll be bitten.

In 2011, the state of California passed legislation outlawing the use of dental scalers, without veterinarian supervision, on pets. Meanwhile, people are allowed to perform dental scaling on their own pets’ teeth, but the Minimum Standards of Veterinary Practice state that unsupervised non-veterinarians are only allowed to use tools such as toothbrushes, gauze, and toothpastes to clean the teeth of pets.

If you practice good pet dental health care at home and have regular dental checks by your vet, you should be able to avoid the many complications of this largely preventable disease.

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