Keeping Your Dog’s Teeth Healthy
Proper dental care should be a regular part of your program for keeping your dog healthy and happy.
It is often overlooked, but pets can suffer the same kinds of dental problems as humans, including severe pain, infection and tooth loss. You can help prevent those issues – and solve those that do arise – by learning about the basics of tooth care and working closely with your veterinarian. You may also be able to take advantage of recent advances in veterinary dentistry, including implants, braces, ultrasonic scaling, root canals, bonding and brightening.
Most dental problems start small and build over time for dogs. Beginning at a very young age, food particles, bacteria and debris can build up at the gum line and under the gums to form plaque. Left unattended, plaque can harden to become calculus and lead to serious oral conditions, including gingivitis, periodontitis and stomatitis.
Some veterinarians also believe – although the evidence is not conclusive – that bacteria associated with tooth and gum disease can spread to internal body systems and contribute to infections in organs like the heart, liver and kidney. If so, a dental prevention program could even help extend a pet's life.
Periodontal disease is the most common disease of small animals. It can be very painful, but pets often suffer in silence – sometimes until all of their teeth have become infected. Relieving that pain may bring a noticeable brightening to a dog's behavior and personality.
A Visit to Your Veterinarian
Dogs should have periodic dental exams. The frequency depends on the animal's age.
- Puppies. You should have your pet's mouth examined as early as possible and again at every vaccination appointment up to four months of age. Another dental exam should be performed at six months, including an assessment of your pet's bite. Some do not lose all their baby teeth when they should, and their permanent teeth can wind up pushed out of line. If that happens, you vet may have to pull the stubborn baby teeth.
- One to three years. At this age, dental exams should be done annually, unless you notice problems or your veterinarian has developed a custom exam program.
- Four to six years. If your pet has perfect teeth and you brush them daily, annual exams may suffice. However, many dogs in this age range require exams every six months.
- Seven years and up. Dental examinations should be performed every six months.
A veterinarian will examine your pet's teeth and gums in many of the same ways that a dentist looks at yours. The examination will include a visual and manual inspection to check for signs of gum disease, tooth discoloration, loose teeth and indications of sensitivity or pain. It may also include:
- Periodontal probing. This involves the use of an instrument that probes between the tooth and gum to measure the depth of the gum pocket. Deep gum pockets are signs of periodontal problems.
- Anesthesia. Examining and performing dental procedures on a pet is not simply a matter of asking the animal to open wide and submit to a local anesthetic. Dogs may have to be immobilized. If anesthesia is required, new injectable anesthetics are available. They are short-acting (a few minutes) and relatively safe. New anesthetic monitors help ensure safety.
- X-rays. Some tooth problems can only be fully diagnosed by a full-mouth X-ray because 70 percent of the tooth structure is beneath the gum line and thus invisible to the naked eye.
- A examination of your pet's tongue and other oral soft tissues to search for abnormalities such as tumors.
Your veterinarian will clean your pet's teeth if there is a build-up of tartar or plaque. This can be done ultrasonically just as it's done for humans. Your vet will probably recommend removing loose teeth and recommend either removal or a root canal procedure if there's tooth decay.
Brushing Your Pet's Teeth
Yes, you can and should brush your pet's teeth. Ideally, you should brush daily, but brushing at least three times a week will go a long way in helping to prevent dental and related problems. First, though, a caution: your pet may dislike the process and resist strenuously. If so, proceed slowly and with care.
- Use a soft toothbrush. A child's toothbrush for small dogs is ideal; an adult size should be used for larger dogs. Rubber finger caps with bristles are also available at most veterinarian offices and pet supply stores.
- Start slowly by lifting up the lip and running your finger or a damp washcloth wrapped around your finger along the gums and teeth. Talk to and praise your pet to keep him calm while you are doing this.
- Gradually increase the amount of time you work in the mouth daily. Concentrate on the outside surface of the teeth. Very little periodontal disease develops on the inside surface of the teeth since the tongue keeps this area clean.
- Use toothpaste formulated especially for pets, available at pet supply stores or your veterinarian's office. Human toothpaste is usually objectionable to them. Do not use baking soda: Its high sodium content can pose a health risk for some animals, especially those with heart conditions.
The best time to clean your pet's teeth is after the evening meal. Your pet will become more cooperative over time if you establish a routine. For example: First feed your pet, next clean the teeth, then play with him. Most dogs adapt to this routine surprisingly well.
Some pet foods have been developed to enhance oral care by having an abrasive action that is designed to scrape tartar from the teeth. There are also numerous chew products available that may be helpful. Use common sense and caution when choosing these products, and ask your veterinarian for help.
The Danger Signs
You can examine your pet's mouth yourself to watch for developing problems. This, too, should be done with caution. It involves looking into the back of the mouth where tartar builds up most and requires pulling your pet's mouth toward the ear. You will be looking for:
- Tooth discoloration, signs of a stony yellow or brown substance on the teeth
- Red or inflamed gums, particularly where the tooth and gum meet
- Bleeding gums
- Loose teeth or any sign that your dog flinches when a tooth is touched
- Bad breath