Besides keeping a pretty smile and fresh breath, brushing our teeth prevents periodontal disease, infection, and tooth loss. The same holds true for our pets. In fact, periodontal disease is one of the most common problems in dogs and cats despite the fact that it is easily preventable. Some statistics show as high as 85% of all pets suffer from some form of oral disease. Brushing your pet’s teeth regularly can not only prevent oral health problems; it can also prevent secondary heart, liver, and kidney infections that originate from bacterial colonies in the mouth.
After an animal consumes a meal, food debris is stuck between the teeth becoming a buffet for bacteria. This mixture becomes plaque, rotting decaying material containing millions of organisms. It is so sticky that it cannot be washed or rinsed away with water. The bacteria produce waste gasses that cause halitosis – bad breath. When described that way, we all want to go brush our teeth right now! A by-product of bacterial colonization in the mouth is called calculus or tartar. It is so hard that brushing will not remove it. It can cover the gum line causing irritation, bleeding, and pockets of infection. The bacteria then have access to the blood stream and furthermore, the internal organs. Thus, the prevention of plaque is key to stopping the progression of periodontal disease.
Brushing your dog or cat’s teeth removes most of the plaque from the tooth surfaces and gums. Since pets can’t “rinse and spit”, special animal toothpaste is used that is safe to swallow. Human toothpastes contain strong detergents that irritate the stomach when swallowed. There are unique toothbrushes for pets as well that are designed to conform to smaller mouths, but a child’s soft bristle toothbrush will work fine (preferably not the same one the child is using). Angle the bristles of the toothbrush toward the gum line, and use gentle strokes. Be sure to brush all surfaces of the teeth. Just like with people, brushing after every meal is recommended. If this is not practical, remember the more often, the better. If the pet seems painful or you notice bleeding, consult the veterinarian for a dental exam.
Dental exams should be performed by the veterinarian at least twice a year. Occasionally, a professional cleaning will be required. An ultrasonic scaling of calculus and high-speed polishing of the tooth enamel is performed under anesthesia. Proper preventive care will avoid tooth extractions and infections by the time of a dental cleaning.
Some grooming salons advertise “teeth cleaning” included with grooming. While they do brush the teeth, this should not be a substitute for regular brushing, nor mistaken for a professional cleaning by a veterinarian.