The Animal Haven, a shelter in North Haven, has a little known fact for you to chew on: we can buy two more years of life for some of our pets by paying attention to their teeth and gums.
“February is National Pet Dental Health Month,” says Dr. Arnie Cary, DVM, and board member of The Animal Haven, “and we pet lovers need to help our dogs and cats (yes, cats too!) keep their teeth and mouths healthy. Untreated dental disease which shows up as bad breath, tartar, infected gums, and loose teeth, can cost our pets dearly.”
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, by the time our pets are three years old, three out of four have some periodontal (gum) disease.
How does this happen? It’s not much different from what happens in human mouths: nature has created a nice “seal” of gum to tooth. This seal keeps bacteria from invading our pets’ bodies. Once plaque (soft, bacteria-laden film) starts to build at the gum line, that seal begins to break down. Gums become inflamed and begin to recede. More plaque develops and hardens into tartar. Eventually bacteria make their way into the underlying bone and the blood stream. In dogs or cats with “bad mouths,” those bacteria can be cultured from their blood stream after a meal. This daily onslaught to the immune system can trigger chronic kidney, liver, and heart problems.
There are easy ways to keep this disastrous cascade of events from occurring in our pets’ mouths, especially if we start early in their lives. Every day, lift the lips of your puppy or kitten to look at her teeth. You don’t need to open her mouth because it is the outside of the teeth that you should be concerned with. After you do this, give your pet plenty of praise and perhaps a treat. In this way, you’ll gain your animal’s trust and encourage her to relax so she’ll eventually allow you to massage her gums and brush her teeth, and to allow a veterinarian to do a dental exam without causing too much stress.
But wait, did we say “brush their teeth?” Yes! You can buy soft brushes and even poultry-flavored toothpaste made especially for cats and dogs. Combine this home dental care with a yearly professional exam (as part of the overall health exam). Your veterinarian may recommend a professional cleaning to remove the calcified tartar and clean below the gum line. Your pet will be safely anesthetized for the procedure, and may need to be x-rayed to see if something else is developing in the mouth.
Even though brushing is by far the best way to keep your pet’s mouth clean, this may be unrealistic. For both cats and dogs, there are dental diets formulated to scrape the teeth and massage the gums as your pet eats. Dental treats are also available, although they can be high calorie, so watch the waistline! There are also dental toys, ropes, and bones for dogs that can help keep their teeth cleaner.
It’s important that any dental brushes, toothpastes, diets, treats, toys, etc. that you use are labeled with a seal of approval from the VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council), to ensure that they have been tested and declared safe and effective. There is a big pet dental health market, with many unsafe and ineffective products out there.
“Periodontal disease in our pets is very prevalent but very preventable. The more you can do at home, and the earlier you start, the happier, healthier, and more comfortable your pet will be,” says Dr. Cary. And, the longer your dog or cat will be a happy and healthy member of your family.