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Dog and Cat Dental Care -- How to Brush Your Pet's Teeth


The leading cause of bad breath in dogs and cats is tooth decay or mouth infections. Diseased teeth and infected gums can produce a very foul odor. Gingivitis and periodontal disease symptoms include bad breath, difficulty chewing or eating, swollen gums that may bleed, drooling, brownish-yellow calculus (tartar), receding gums, loose or missing teeth.

The most common symptom of dog or cat dental disease is bad breath (halitosis). In addition, you may notice inflamed gums (gingivitis), tartar, difficulty chewing or pain when chewing, poor appetite, and weight loss. Dental disease usually manifests itself as gum disease (gingivitis) secondary to plaque and tartar accumulation. Plaque is an invisible accumulation of bacteria that forms on teeth. As the plaque on the teeth continues to accumulate, it eventually mineralizes and hardens to form tartar, which can be observed accumulating on the tooth surface.

Dental disease can spread to other organs of the body, causing serious and dangerous illness to your pet. Diseases such as kidney failure, diabetes, or gastrointestinal problems can cause a change in breath and a sore mouth may cause increased drooling. Dogs and cats have a tendency towards developing gingivitis (gum disease) as they age. However, gingivitis has been diagnosed in young pets. If gingivitis is left untreated the inflammation moves into the root of the tooth (periodontal disease) and can cause pain and tooth loss. Eventually, bacteria from this infection enter into the bloodstream and can cause serious disease to heart valves, liver, and kidneys. Your pet might be lethargic, cough, have breathing difficulty, or have a general appearance of poor health.

Tartar control biscuits, bones, chews, or a rope toy can help to reduce tartar buildup above the gum line, but only regular brushing can reach the critical areas below the gum line. The best oral rinse product that destroys bacteria that forms plaque on teeth and gums is Nolvadent Oral Cleansing Solution. My dogs love the taste and allow me to brush their teeth without any fuss. Dental health chew toys with catnip are sold for cats. Dry dog or cat food helps keep the plaque level down. However, it helps only in the area that's visible, not in the important area just below the gum line.

pet dental care

Dental disease requires special care before, during, and after the time the problem is resolved. It is diagnosed by a veterinarian only after a complete exam is performed. It is important that a veterinarian makes this diagnosis because there are some diseases that can mimic the symptoms of dental disease but have different causes and treatments.

Brushing your dog or cat's teeth does the best job of cleaning the important area below the gum line, where bacteria and plaque hide and can rot away the gums and bone. Veterinarians recommend home dental care which involves brushing your pet's teeth at least twice a week, or more frequently for stubborn dental problems. Regular preventive dental care will keep your pet's teeth and gums healthy and protect your pet's long term health.

Brushing a dog or cat's teeth is easier than brushing your own. Their narrow teeth are spaced more widely than human teeth, eliminating the need for flossing. Their teeth only touch in 1 or 2 places. A toothbrush can reach about 90% of the areas that need to be brushed. Always use specially formulated pet toothpaste, and never use human toothpaste. Because pets can't rinse and spit after a brushing, the paste must be safe for pets to swallow. Some human toothpastes contain detergents which can irritate pets' stomachs, and large quantities of ingested fluoride can harm pets. There are many pet toothpaste flavors such as chicken (poultry), peanut butter, seafood, and beef. You can buy pet toothpaste at the pet store or from your veterinarian.

Most pet dental kits contain a toothbrush and toothpaste. If using a human toothbrush, pick a soft nylon bristle -- for a smaller dog, a soft child-sized brush will suffice. Finger brushes can be purchased as well. These fit on a fingertip and allow owners easier access to their pets mouth. Electric toothbrushes can be used if your dog or cat can tolerate the mechanical noise.

Start slowly and make tooth brushing enjoyable. It may take several sessions to gradually increase the amount of teeth brushed.

Brush Your Pet's Teeth in 5 Easy Steps

1. Select a quiet convenient time when you and your pet are both relaxed and comfortable.

2. Sit in a position where you have your pet on your lap and your pet is laying on his side. With your finger begin gently stroking the outside of his cheeks and then proceed to the inside of his cheeks. For these first few sessions don't use a pet toothbrush. After he becomes comfortable with your finger in his mouth, place a dab of pet toothpaste on your finger and let him taste it.

3. Introduce the toothbrush by placing a small amount of toothpaste on the brush. In a slow circular motion, brush 1 or 2 front teeth, and the adjoining gum line. The purpose of this step is to get your pet accustomed to the feel of the brush.

4. Over the next several days, gradually increase the number of teeth brushed. It is important to eventually brush the back teeth where plaque and tartar have a greater tendency to accumulate. Go slowly and gently and stop before your pet begins to fuss. If he dislikes the procedure, and finds out that more fussing makes you stop quicker, then brushing is going to get harder, not easier.

5. Build up to about 30 seconds on each side (upper and lower teeth) for a total of 2 minutes. Dogs and cats don't get much tartar on the inside surfaces of their teeth, so you only need to worry about the outside surfaces. Be sure to brush the big teeth way in back. Stop each session while it is still fun and lavishly praise your dog or cat afterwards. He will soon start looking forward to tooth brushing and it will become a pleasant activity for both of you. You can use positive reinforcement clicker training.

The toothbrush can either be a special pet ergonomic soft bristle brush, or a finger toothbrush. Finger brushes are very gentle and feel good on your pet's gums as it sweeps away plaque and food debris, while massaging gums to increase circulation. It's compact and flexible enough to allow you to reach the entire tooth and gum surfaces. Slide the molded rubber finger toothbrush over your index finger and apply a small dab of dog or cat toothpaste onto the bristles. Slip your finger inside your pet's cheek and using a small circular motion, brush the teeth and gum line.

Look for abscessed teeth and other dental problems while you're brushing, and have a veterinarian properly treat any such problems such as gingivitis or periodontal (gum) disease.

Tooth fractures can lead to infection inside the tooth (called endodontic disease). Dogs can break their teeth surprisingly easily, just from crunching down on hard rocks, cow hoove dog chews, and other tough substances. Many dogs are inclined to chew on hard things to exercise their gums. But the teeth used to chew are extremely vulnerable to fracture. Dogs chew in an up and down motion, which causes the object to slide off to the side of the tooth and may break it. This exposes the pulp tissue inside the tooth, and requires a veterinarian's attention. Cats can fracture teeth caused by trauma or by chewing on hard objects. The canines (the long teeth in front) are the most commonly fractured teeth. Doing nothing about a fractured tooth leaves a tooth that is painful and a possible avenue of infection. Extraction is usually necessary for fractured teeth in dogs and cats.

Animals 8 years and older (less frequently young animals) can develop oral cancer. The third most common site for cancer is the oral cavity. In young animals, problems can involve tumors that affect the teeth directly. Odontomas are tumors that evolve from the tooth bud and fortunately are benign, and if properly excised by a specialist veterinary dentist will not return. If left in the mouth, they can grow and become locally damaging. Occasional checking of your pet's mouth and comparing your pet's teeth will help detect this tumor in its early stages and allow for timely removal by a veterinary dentist.

Unfortunately, most oral cancers are malignant, which means they will not only grow locally, but also can often spread or metastasize to other locations. Early detection offers the possibility of complete recovery. However, if the tumor has been present for a longer period of time, and has aggressively invaded surrounding tissue, the oral surgeon often can only be palliative in his approach, by easing pain with medications.

Call your veterinarian if your pet has:

  • broken or loose teeth
  • inflamed, red, swollen or bleeding gums
  • bad breath all of the time
  • yellow or brown tartar buildup on teeth or gum line
  • persistent pawing at mouth or face
  • changes in eating habits or chewing
  • drooling
  • blood in the saliva

Professional Veterinarian Cleanings (The Dental)
Professional dental cleaning is often indicated when periodontal disease is present. Sometimes veterinarians will prescribe antibiotics and require blood work prior to the dental. The cleaning, which takes place under general anesthesia consists of scaling to remove tartar above and below the gum line; polishing to smooth the surface of the teeth; and flushing to dislodge tartar and bacteria. If any loose teeth are found during the process, they will be extracted.

Thanks to advancements in recent years, anesthesia risks have lowered greatly. A tube will be placed into the trachea to allow breathing. This tube has an inflatable cuff on it that keeps the water needed for flushing during the procedure from going into the lungs. After the tube is in place, the veterinarian will begin scraping the tartar and plaque off with dental instruments.

Next the veterinarian will often use a stain to make sure all the plaque is removed. Finally, an abrasive dental paste will be applied with a machine that has a rotating head. This paste polishes the teeth and will smooth scratches so plaque won't have as many places to adhere to.

It is usual procedure to send the pet home that day with instructions for follow up and preventative care given to the owner. Preventative care includes a small soft toothbrush, oral paste or gel, and often an antibacterial rinse. If the infection was really severe, oral antibiotics will be given to you for your pet to take.

Your veterinarian can advise how frequently your dog or cat requires a dental and set up an appropriate schedule. The charges consist of the time and skill involved, and the cost of anesthesia which is based on weight. If your pet's teeth have not received regular care, and need extra treatment including removal, the cost may be more. You may want to schedule any other care that may require anesthesia at the same time.