Both dogs and cats can suffer from dental disease. Dental disease can cause your pet to lose teeth, can cause significant pain, and can also cause even more serious health issues, such as kidney disease or heart disease.

What is the best way to keep your dog or cat’s teeth healthy? The gold standard for at-home dental care is brushing. When brushing your pet’s teeth, always use toothpaste that is made specifically for dogs and cats. Human toothpaste can be dangerous if swallowed by your pet. Specialized brushes are also made for dogs and cats and make the job of brushing a bit easier.

Most dogs and even many cats can be taught to accept having their teeth brushed with a little time and patience on your part. But what about those that will not? Is there an alternative? Of course. In fact, there are several. Even if your pet does allow you to brush his teeth, you may still want to consider using some of these alternate products in addition to brushing.

There are a number of dentrifices that are specifically designed to help keep your pet’s teeth and gums healthy. Some are treats or chewies that your pet can enjoy. Others are toys that are made in such a fashion that they work to "clean" the teeth while your pet is chewing on and playing with them. Just be certain to purchase a breed-appropriate product. A chewie or toy made for a small dog may pose a choking hazard for a large-breed dog. Conversely, products made for large dogs may be too large for small breeds to be able to use effectively.

There are also dry diets that are formulated to help keep your pet’s teeth clean and his gums healthy. Many of these diets contain kibble specially shaped to perform this task as well as containing ingredients that help reduce the accumulation of plaque. These diets can be reasonably effective in reducing the amount of plaque that is deposited on your pet’s teeth.

Though wet food is not inherently bad for your pet’s teeth and will not by itself cause dental disease, dry diets — especially of the dental diet variety — tend to slow the progress of dental disease more effectively due to the scraping motion against the teeth as your pet eats the food. For this reason, many pet owners choose to feed a combination of wet and dry. Still, if you are brushing your pet’s teeth, there is no reason not to feed an exclusively wet diet if you desire. (Many cat owners and some veterinarians believe that a wet diet is healthier for a cat than a dry diet, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

In addition, there are a number of oral rinses that can be purchased. Though these products will not do the same thorough job that brushing accomplishes, they can be useful if your pet will not allow brushing, will not or cannot eat a dental diet, and is uninterested in chewies and toys.

Sealants can also be used on your pet’s teeth to help ward off plaque, tartar, gingivitis, and other diseases. These sealants are wax-like products that are applied to the teeth first by your veterinarian after a proper dental examination and scaling (cleaning), and then at home by you, the pet owner.

Veterinary care for your pet’s mouth is an important part of any oral health program. Though your veterinarian may be able to perform a limited oral examination while your pet is awake, your pet will need to be anesthetized in order to perform a thorough and comprehensive examination of the teeth and mouth.

Once the examination is complete, your veterinarian will use an ultrasonic scaler to clean your pet’s teeth both above and below the gumline and then will polish your pet’s teeth. Cleaning below the gumline is crucial because that is where disease begins, and it cannot be done while your pet is awake. Don’t be fooled by pet care personnel who offer to do anesthesia-free dental scaling at a much lower cost. These “standing” procedures are strictly cosmetic, do not remove plaque and tartar from below the gumline, and those performing them are not trained to adequately examine your pet’s mouth for evidence of disease.

In addition to scaling your pet’s teeth, your veterinarian will also formulate a treatment plan to help correct any existing disease found during the dental examination. Don’t be surprised if your veterinarian also needs to take radiographs (X-rays) of your pet’s teeth and mouth, just like your own dentist does.

Your veterinarian can also help you learn how to brush your pet’s teeth, choose an appropriate diet, and find toys, chewies, and other products that will help keep your pet’s teeth and gums healthy far into the future.

Dr. Lorie Huston

Image: Truman Gets His Teeth Brushed by John Morton / via Flickr