Groomer to Groomer

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You Want Me to do What?

By Bernardine Cruz, DVM


“You want me to do what?” I commonly get that response when I tell my clients that they need to brush their pets’ teeth. Though most pet owners have never attended to their pets’ oral hygiene at home or, for that matter, had a professional prophylactic, this doesn’t mean it isn’t essential to their pets’ overall health. Dental disease can adversely affect the liver, kidneys, heart muscle, and joints. The onset of damage is insidious, and it can shorten a pet’s health span by years.

Understanding the significance dental disease can have on general wellbeing is a relatively new phenomenon in veterinary medicine. As with human medicine, dentistry has made tremendous advances in the past 20 years. No longer is “tuna breath” an accepted part of getting kissed by your pet. As we can see from root canals to braces, bad teeth don’t always need to be extracted or merely tolerated.

Cats and dogs occasionally need to have their teeth professionally cleaned. How often depends on diet, genetics, and luck. Certain breeds of cats and dogs are genetically prone to developing oral disease. Pets with flat faces or brachycephalic breeds, like Pugs and Persian cats, have teeth that are crowded and misaligned in their small mouths. This dental architecture allows food and the normal biofilm that forms on the teeth throughout the day to build up and turn into calculus (tartar) more easily than their longer-nosed relatives.

Studies have shown that at least half of all cats over one year of age have some form of dental disease. Eighty-five percent of cats and dogs over the age of four suffer from periodontal disease. “Periodontal” refers to the outer surface of the tooth and the tissue around them where brushing can really make a difference. Frequent brushing removes the soft, gummy plaque that builds up daily. If it is not removed every 48 hours, it mineralizes into hard tartar. Tartar irritates the gum tissue, allowing bacteria to get under the gum line. This can eventually lead to tooth loss and abscesses, as well as infections in organs far from the oral cavity.

So how do you know if a pet needs its teeth professionally cleaned?

  • Flip the lip and take a sniff. Don’t expect the breath to be pristine, but it shouldn’t knock you over. If it does, see a veterinarian.
  • Examine all of the teeth – not just the ones in front. To examine the teeth located toward the rear of the oral cavity, grasp the lips at the point where the top one meets the bottom and extend them upward toward the ear. Pets have salivary glands that deposit digestive juices over these exposed molars. This causes them to build up tartar more rapidly than the incisors in the front of the mouth.
  • All of the teeth should be white in color with a smooth surface. If they are brown or sport a covering of gritty debris (tartar), they need to be cleaned. If you notice that a portion of a tooth is missing, which often happens to the canine teeth or the larger grinding teeth, the pet needs to see a veterinarian immediately.
  • Gum tissue should be pink in color and form a smooth line at the tooth margin. If it is red and inflamed or if you notice pus at the base of the tooth, make an appointment right away.

It can be difficult to determine if a pet’s teeth are bothering it. Dogs and cats are often too stoic for their own good. Think “survival of the fittest.” A pet that demonstrates weakness or pain may be the first one taken by a predator. Yes, they are now our babies, but through the ages, their predecessors have hard wired their brains and behavior to be phlegmatic.

What to look for:

  • Reluctance to eat
  • Excessive salivation
  • Bleeding from the mouth
  • Oral malodor
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • General “blahs”

When is the best time to start brushing a pet’s teeth? Today. Initiating a home dental care program is easiest when the pet is a kitten or puppy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t begin an older pet on the road to improved dental hygiene at any point in its life.

Even a face-shy pet can have its teeth brushed. It will take a bit of patience and a good sense of humor. Basically take it slowly and make a game out of it. Begin by just rubbing fingers over the pet’s muzzle. Don’t even touch the nose and lips. Praise the pet profusely after the handling. A great time to start the program is while watching TV with your pet next to you. Who wants to watch the commercials anyway?

After a week of fussing with the pet, apply a small dab of pet toothpaste onto its lips. Canine/feline dentifrice is very different than ours, and we should not be tempted to use our Colgate Whitening tube on them. Pet toothpaste doesn’t foam, because pets aren’t good at spitting. It contains no or little fluoride, so they can swallow it without irritating their stomachs. It also comes in pet-friendly flavors such as seafood, beef, and peanut butter. For the next week: toothpaste on lips, play with muzzle, and praise like crazy.

Now you are ready to brush the teeth. Don’t put the pet in a head lock. Let it chew and play with the brush. You only have to concentrate on the outer aspect of the teeth. The tongue does a pretty good job on the inside surface of the teeth. If the brush is not accepted, you can wrap a soft towel around your finger or even slip a cotton-tipped swab under the gums as a cleaning device. How often should you scrub the teeth? In a perfect world, it would be daily.

On the subject of diet and clean teeth, there are excellent diets and treats that can assist in removing the biofilm from the teeth. Liquids are available for adding to a pet’s drinking water or spritzing onto the teeth to slow down calculus formation or soothe inflamed gums. Here is a word of caution when purchasing hard toys: they may cause more problems than they solve by chipping or breaking a tooth. Try offering a dog raw carrots or slices of apple as a healthy dental treat.

Even with a stellar home dental care program, a pet will still need periodic veterinary attention. People often think that their pet is too old for a dental cleansing and have concerns about the risks of anesthesia. Anesthesia is much safer than it was several years ago. A veterinarian will take all precautions to safeguard the pet. If teeth need to be extracted, rest assured that the veterinarian will only extract them if it is absolutely necessary. When advanced dental procedures, such as root canals, are indicated, a veterinarian may perform these services in clinic or refer to a board certified veterinary dentist. Remember, the pet is not going to get any younger, and the teeth are not going to be any better. ✂