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February 05, 2018

Did you know that “dog breath” is not normal? Or that 85 per cent of dogs and 75 per cent of cats over the age of three will develop dental disease? Our fur babies use their mouths for eating, grooming, and playing. A painful or infected mouth negatively impacts their quality of life. Like us, our furry friends benefit from a combination of daily home care as well as routine professional dental care with a veterinarian.

What is periodontal disease?

When we talk about dental disease in pets, it's generally “periodontal disease,” which damages the bone and ligaments that hold teeth in place. Periodontal disease starts as sticky, plaque bacteria on teeth that can best be described as how your mouth feels in the morning before you brush your teeth. If you don't remove the bacteria, it begins to bind with calcium in your dog or cat’s saliva and then hardens into brown or yellow tartar. This forms a rough surface that invites more bacterial growth and irritates the soft tissues, which pull away and create pockets that give even more bacteria a place to live. This leads to the loss of supporting bone of the tooth sockets and teeth fall out. In tiny dogs, this process can even lead to spontaneous jaw fractures that can occur during daily activities such as eating. Bad breath is a warning sign that this process is happening. If you have noticed excessive odor, loose or missing teeth, or changes in how your fur baby eats, you should schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.

Why do certain types of animals get dental disease?

Some types of animals will be more likely to have aggressive dental disease: Toy breed dogs such as Yorkshire terriers or chihuahuas have a strong genetic predisposition to dental disease and can have extensive disease at a very young age. Boxers and mastiff-type breeds are prone to developing benign oral tumors that are driven by bacteria on their teeth. These tumors do not spread outside the mouth, but they create pockets that lead to secondary dental disease.

Cats can be infected with several viruses that leave their immune systems compromised and allow dental infection to spread rapidly. Animals with Diabetes need you to pay extra attention to their oral health, as dental disease makes diabetes more difficult to control. Any dog breeds with flat faces such as pugs, boxers, or bulldogs, will have crowded teeth that collect food debris and bacteria.

Why is it important to take care of my dog or cat's teeth?

Aside from the unpleasant smell, dental infection releases bacteria into the bloodstream and may place a burden on vital organs like the heart, kidneys, and liver. Animals are unlikely to show signs of oral pain the way we would expect them to. It’s very rare for them to cry, drool, or stop eating – even with very severe disease or bad injuries. If any of these signs appear, they should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

When do I need to start dental care?

The best thing that you can do for your fur baby is to start dental care early. The ideal time is when they are a puppy or kitten. Their baby teeth are going to fall out, but introducing toothbrushing and mouth handling sets the stage for lifelong care. Have you missed that chance and already have an older animal? You can still teach them! You just need to be more patient and recognize that the training may take longer.

What can I do at home?

The most effective home care you can give your dog or cat is brushing once a day with a bristled brush. It takes three days for plaque bacteria to start turning in to tartar, at which point it can no longer be brushed off. Brushing any less often than this is not nearly as effective. You'll need to be very patient and work at your pet’s speed.

It's important to keep it positive and don’t force them. Start by touching their face, then move on to lifting their lips, and touching their teeth with your fingers. You can let them lick some tasty pet toothpaste from a toothbrush and then start to move the brush over their teeth. Try to focus on the upper teeth and outer surfaces, as these are the areas that collect the most bacteria. If your dog or cat clamps their mouth shut, you can still reach these surfaces easily. If they try to chew on the brush, start by rewarding them any time that they sit still for a few seconds. If they are just so excited to have their teeth brushed, you may simply need to focus on keeping the brush against the surface of the teeth and ignore whatever else they may do.

Tips for working with difficult animals

Have you tried very hard and your fur baby won’t accept a toothbrush? Don’t panic! There are some animals, especially cats, that will not allow brushing. When it comes down to it, any home care you can do will help.

  • Dental diets are specially formulated to help remove plaque and prevent tartar formation. They usually use a combination of fibre content and kibble size that holds its shape so they act like a squeegee on teeth when chewed. Some have a coating that prevents the calcium from binding with plaque bacteria, preventing tartar. Examples of commercially available dental diets include Eukanuba™ or Hills® Science Diet ® Oral Care line.
  • Different sprays and water additives are also available that may help to varying degrees.
  • Chew items can be helpful, but dogs and cats should be supervised when they are offered any new toy or chew to ensure that they don’t attempt to swallow large pieces whole. Some examples of chew items include Greenies® or Pedigree® Dentastix . Hard chew items, while effective at cleaning, may carry the risk of breaking teeth.
  • A general guideline when evaluating a chew item is that if you cannot bend it, even a little, with your bare hands, then it is too hard and may break teeth.

The next time your fur baby gives you a big, slobbery kiss, take a moment to think about that mouth! Daily home dental care and regular professional care is the very best thing that you can do to help your animal companions live their longest, happiest life.


Bio: Jennifer Deeks is a Registered Veterinary Technician (RVT) with the Ontario Association of Veterinary Technicians. Over the years, she has worked in many areas of veterinary medicine, including general practice, emergency and critical care, avian and exotics, and specialty dentistry. Outside of veterinary medicine, Jennifer can usually be found running, mountain biking, or snuggling with her miniature schnauzer, Elsie.

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*Bernard and Kitty's Waggy Tales articles are for information purposes only and are neither intended as, nor should be substituted for professional advice, or the treatment or diagnosis of any health conditions. Information that is provided in this blog is intended for general knowledge: consult your veterinarian if you have questions about caring for your animal, or about your animal’s health or condition.

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