Do I Really Need to Brush My Pet’s Teeth?
Healthy teeth help make a healthy pet. Preventive dental care is one of the most neglected pet health needs. Yet it’s just as important for pets as it is for people. Periodontal disease is the most common disease of small animals.
- What Is Periodontal Disease?
- What Happens During a Veterinary Dental Exam and Cleaning?
- When Should I Start Brushing My Pet’s Teeth?
- Why Do My Cat’s Teeth Look Red?
- My Pet Eats Only Dry Food, or Eats Plenty of Dog Biscuits. Do I Still Need to Brush?
- Getting Started With Good Home Care
When food remains on the teeth it forms plaque, which continuously builds on the tooth and, if not removed, hardens and becomes what we call calculus. Periodontal disease, called gingivitis in its early states, is caused by a buildup of plaque and calculus below the gum line. According to Angell Memorial dental technician Jennifer Robinson, some 85% of dogs and cats over the age of two have some form of periodontal disease. This painful and progressive gum disease caused inflammation and, finally, tooth loss.
Warning signs include:
- bad breath;
- loose teeth;
- gingivitis (redness or inflammation of the gums);
- lack of appetite;
- bleeding gums.
Periodontal disease is painful. Animals cannot speak, so it is up to us to take responsibility for their care. If you think your pet may have periodontal disease, please schedule an appointment to have your veterinarian perform an oral exam. He or she may inform you that you need to speak with the dental technician to schedule a dental exam and cleaning.
A dental exam and cleaning, called a prophylaxis, is the standard treatment for periodontal disease. This includes manual and ultrasonic removal of plaque above and below the gum line. Polishing and fluoride treatment usually follow. A dental prophylaxis can alleviate your pet’s discomfort, and yearly oral exams should be performed to diagnose and treat dental problems in their early states, but veterinary care alone will not prevent periodontal disease. Good home care is essential for maintaining healthy teeth and gums. Most important, you should brush your dog or cat’s teeth daily.
The younger your pet is when he or she is introduced to tooth brushing, the more easily the animal will accept the procedure. Ideally, you should begin brushing when your kitten or puppy is 8-12 weeks old. But, like any good habit, it’s never too late to start. Immediately following your per’s dental prophylaxis, you should begin brushing his or her teeth every day. This is important not only because tarter begins to build 6-8 hours after a meal, but because it gets your pet into a daily routine. It should not take longer than 30 seconds each day. A reward, such as a dog cookie or tuna juice, is a great idea. Your pet will remember this treat more than the actual brushing. Tips for getting started, brushing techniques, and other important information follow. And remember, never use human toothpaste or baking soda on your pet’s teeth.
Some cats develop red tissue around their gums that seems to grow over the tooth. Usually the tooth enamel under this red tissue is eroded and can be filled once the tissue is removed. If, however, the enamel has eroded to expose the tooth’s pulp (nerve and blood supply), the tooth cannot be filled and must be extracted, since it caused pain for the animal. We do not yet know why this enamel erosion occurs, but weekly use of fluoride on the teeth may help prevent the lesions.
A hard dry diet will help keep the crowns of the teeth clean, but not below the gumline. Dog biscuits will remove some plaque, but again, they cannot clean below the gumline and will not prevent periodontal disease. While feeding these foods is good for your pet’s teeth, it is no substitute for daily brushing.
The following recommendations can make daily brushing easy for your and your pet.
- Use a soft toothbrush. Use a soft toothbrush. A child’s toothbrush for cats and small dogs is ideal; an adult size should be used for larger dogs. Rubber finger caps with bristles are also available at most veterinarians and pet supply stores.
- Use toothpaste formulated especially for pets, available at pet supply stores or your veterinarian’s office. Human toothpaste can be harmful to animals if swallowed, and the taste is usually objectionable to them. Do not use baking soda. Its high sodium content can pose a health risk for some animals, especially with heart conditions.
- Develop a habit with a regular daily schedule. After dinner brushing will remove the day’s food before it hardens on the gums and teeth.
- Start slowly by lifting up the lip and running first your finger and then a toothbrush along the gums and teeth in a slow, circular motion to clean under the gumline. When your pet has adjusted to this motion, begin using toothpaste. Gradually increase the amount of time you brush daily.
- There may be some minor bleeding when you first start brushing, but it will stop as the gums become healthier.
- After cleaning, be sure your pet has access to fresh water.
- Praise often and generously. Offer your pet a treat immediately after brushing.
Please note: The information provided here is intended to supplement the recommendations of your veterinarian. Do not disregard veterinary advice or delay treatment based on information on this site. Nothing can replace a complete history and physical examination performed by your veterinarian. -Dr. Jeff
Copyright © and reproduced courtesy of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the American Humane Education Society. For more information, contact Beth Shapiro, MSPCA/AHES Publications Department, 350 South Huntington Ave, Boston, MA 02130; (617) 541-5107