A question we get quite often in our practice is about brushing your pet’s teeth and whether we feel it is necessary:
Imagine not brushing your teeth for a day, now a week, how about a whole month? The results would be pretty disgusting and unhealthy. Yet pet owners question the need for taking their pets to their vet for annual cleaning, despite not having a comprehensive plan to keep those canine or feline teeth free of tartar and bacteria. Pet food doesn’t contain a magic cleaner ingredient that protects their teeth, otherwise that magic ingredient would be put into human food as well and the toothpaste and toothbrush market would cease to exist. The truth is, most pet owners just neglect their pets’ teeth until often it’s time to have them pulled out. Often this also is the time where the vet discovers that not only do teeth have to be removed, but the pet has also developed a heart or kidney condition directly related to the rotten teeth.
February is Pet Dental Health Awareness month according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. This is when veterinarians nationwide try to raise awareness of how serious dental disease is in pets, and just how preventable it can be. In difficult economic times, pet owners may think that their pet’s dental care is optional. However this is tragically the case of being penny wise but pound foolish. The cost of pet toothpaste and toothbrushes can be under $20 and those supplies can last a month or longer. Annual exams and cleanings are not cheap (often exceeding $400 because they require anesthesia… and don’t be tempted to skip the anesthetic and pre-screening test for reasons discussed further on), yet are still a bargain when compared to treating the many related health conditions that follow poor teeth care. As in humans, poor teeth can lead to heart and liver disease, cause sinus problems, and abscesses left untreated can become fatal. Untreated pain in pets can lead to lack of appetite that then has a snowball affect of otherwise avoidable ailments (like dehydration and kidney problems). Also, as most pet owners know, pets in pain become more temperamental, are likely to bite unexpectedly in self-defense, and in general act unpredictably.
Pets deserve proper and compassionate care at home and at their vet. The AVMA recommends that all dental cleanings incorporate dental x-rays. The reason this is recommended is simple. Unlicensed technicians are allowed to do cleanings of pets’ teeth that are above the gums. However, again just like humans, the biggest problems are not always those that are easy to see. Cursory “dental cleanings” make the exposed surface of the teeth look fairly healthy, but those same pets will have pockets of plaque and decay that are easily seen on x-rays; plaque and decay that have been free to wage war against pets’ teeth and immune system for months or even years. Unfortunately some pet health care providers give in to pressures by pet owners to look for ways to save money, and the result will be that pets will get cursory cleanings above the gums. This saves time, doesn’t require a licensed professional, and may mean the vet or technician skips the costs of x-rays and anesthesia. Again, this is at the cost of a pet’s overall health. The AVMA estimates that by the age of 3, 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have oral disease.
Luckily, the easiest way to keep your pet or pets healthy is also the cheapest: start a daily routine of brushing your pet’s teeth. It is easy, and no pet is too old to learn how. Start by buying special toothpaste for dogs or cats. It is flavored so that cats and dogs will want to use/eat it (obviously pets won’t spit, so it must be safe for them to consumer… which is why you should never use cleaners meant for humans!) For the first several days or weeks, just focus on getting your pets used to the toothbrush which is a finger cap you place on your index finger (like a baby’s toothbrush). Have lots of treats ready. Brush for as long as the pet allows you too, usually 30 seconds is plenty, and as soon as they lose interest or become uncomfortable, stop brushing, and reinforce this as a positive activity with a lot of praise and a treat. Before long, your pet will look forward to having their teeth brushed. And don’t pass up getting your pet’s annual dental cleaning. Pets with routine dental care will have longer and healthier lives than those who do not.
Routine annual physical and dental exams allow for vets to catch any other issues early, when there is time to make less expensive behavior changes (to avoid diabetes for example) or treatments (like newly discovered drug treatments that can be effective against certain cancers.) Ignoring obvious problems, like not taking care of your pet’s teeth for months or years on end, will only increase your costs, lead to avoidable suffering for your pet, and decrease the amount of time you have him or her in your family. And if your pet is considered a “senior pet”, which are pets in the last 25% of their expected lifespan (normally above 7 for dogs and cats), they should be seen by your vet twice per year, since they start to experience an accelerated rate of physical changes. February is Pet Dental Health Awareness month nationwide, and many vets are offering discounts for dental procedures in order to help spread the word.
Dr. Hanh Chau has been in practice for the past 11 years in the DC metro area. She is trained and certified in Veterinary Acupuncture and as a Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. She recently opened Family Veterinary Hospital of South Riding in Chantilly (family-vet.com) 703-327-8425