The mouth is the gateway to the rest of the body. If the gateway is diseased, the whole body is at risk. Keeping the mouth healthy is extremely important in helping maintain the general health of both human and pet alike. In my experience in veterinary medicine, the health of the mouth is often over looked and as a result dental and periodontal disease can develop. Below is an overview of some ways you and your veterinarian can help prevent dental and periodontal disease in your pets.

The foundation of good dental health is tooth brushing. Why do we brush our teeth and why should we brush our pet’s teeth? Brushing helps remove a microscopic biofilm that develops on the surface of the teeth which can lead to the production of plaque. A significant amount of this biofilm can build up within a matter of hours. If daily brushing is not preformed, plaque, which is an accumulation of bacteria, will build up at the gum line. Plaque ultimately will form into tartar or calculus, further irritating the gums, and then infection can progress to loosen and destroy the attachment of the tooth. These associated infections can spread to the vital organs such as the liver, kidneys, and heart.

Along with promoting good health, brushing your pet’s teeth can be a rewarding experience and even help strengthen your bond with your pet. But not all pets instantly view tooth brushing as a pleasurable experience. The important thing is to start slowly. Often some light handling of the face and muzzle is a good first step. Be sure to reward your pet when they allow this interaction. Gradually then move step by step lifting lips, introducing toothpaste, introducing a finger brush and then soft tooth brush. Pet-safe tooth paste should be purchased from your veterinarian. Human tooth paste contains ingredients that are not safe to swallow, and should not be used with pets. When a good tooth brushing regimen is established you can add in additional oral hygiene tools including dental treats, oral rinses, and food or water additives. You and your veterinarian can create an at-home oral health plan that will be appropriate for you and your furry friend.

Daily tooth brushing can also allow you to recognize signs of oral disease. Bad breath, missing or broken teeth, mobile teeth, inflamed gums, and gingival masses may be observed. Chattering of the teeth can be a sign of oral pain. If you notice any of these symptoms, be sure to tell your veterinarian.

Many pets enjoy chewing on toys or treats. This is an acceptable, even beneficial activity. However, excessive tugging or pulling on toys/treats should be avoided. Very hard items (i.e. if the item can be used to hammer a nail into a piece of wood) should not be offered to pets. Repetitive chewing of abrasive toys, such as tennis balls, can wear surface enamel over time.

In addition to at-home dental care, your veterinarian can perform routine dental prophylaxis to help maintain oral health and treat various oral health issues. This care includes a complete oral examination under general anesthesia. This is required to ensure a pain and stress free detailed exam of the mouth and oral structures. Thorough cleaning/scaling the surfaces of the teeth, especially subgingivally, can be preformed. Teeth are then polished to smooth the microscopically roughened tooth surface. Dental x-rays are taken to help assess the teeth and underlying structures. While your pet is anesthetized even other oral disease concerns (e.g. fractured teeth and oral masses) can be treated.

Many of the principles of dental health in humans apply in our pets. Diligent and routine care can help keep your pet’s teeth bright, shining and healthy, bringing long life to the pearly whites. – Peter Olson, DVM

Peter Olson, DVM, is a 2007 graduate of The Ohio State University School of Veterinary Medicine. He and his wife Beth share their home with two dogs, two cats, four turtles and a Russian Tortoise.