Now that we know who the enemy of good pet dental health is, how do we fight it?
Well, first I’ll give you the bad news. There is nothing that is 100% effective in preventing plaque and tartar from forming. But what you can do can make a huge difference.
Brushing will give your pet the biggest benefit in improving their oral health because it assists in removing plaque. Since it takes a few days for plaque to harden into tartar, it works best if done every day or two. And while pet toothpaste (toothpaste for humans should never be used for pets) does have some features that help make brushing easier such as added abrasives and a taste that hopefully appeals to your pet, even brushing without it will help as the mechanical action of the bristles will remove plaque.
The earlier you begin brushing teeth the better. Not only to get your pet used to it and to get you in the habit of brushing, but to reduce the damage to those fibers that connect the tooth to the surrounding tissue. This damage causes pockets around the tooth that brushing will not be able to reach.
What do you do when there’s tartar on the teeth or when your pet has periodontal disease and deep pockets? In that case, a professional cleaning is needed. A professional cleaning is able to remove plaque and tartar that is under the gum line. Along with this removal, a thorough exam is done to check for other dental issues like broken teeth, loose teeth, or growths in the mouth. While cavities are common in humans, they are rare in dogs, cats and ferrets, but cats can develop tooth resorption lesions. Dental x-rays may be taken to check the roots and bone for any problems.
Ann at Pawsitively Pets did a great post on what is done during a professional cleaning- An Inside Look at Teeth Cleanings for Pets. Scalers are used to get to remove plaque and tartar both above and below the gum line. The teeth are polished. Fluoride may be applied. It’s a lot like your biannual cleaning. But there is 1 big difference.
Anesthesia. To undergo a professional cleaning, your pet needs to be anesthetized. And this is something that worries a lot of pet owners. Anesthesia is never anything to take lightly, there is a risk with any procedure. But there are things your vet will do to lower the risk. Pre-op bloodwork will help rule out any systemic problems. Your vet may want to do an ECG to rule out any heart problems. They will monitor your pet’s heart rate and oxygen level while under anesthesia.
What about cleaning the teeth without anesthesia? There are places that offer scaling teeth as a service. You can even buy scalers to try and use them yourself. But is it a good thing to do?
There are a few reasons this might not be the best thing for your pet.
- It is hard to work below the gum line on pets that are not anesthetized. It can be uncomfortable and there are times in human dentistry when local anesthesia is used for those patients with extensive periodontal disease. Trying to keep a pet still while doing this extensive cleaning can be hard and even dangerous since sharp instruments are used.
- Since all the scaling is done above the gum line, it makes the procedure cosmetic only and still leaves a big problem since the real danger to your pet’s health resides below the gum line in the gingival pocket.
- Scaling roughens up the enamel of the tooth making it much easier for plaque to stick. This is one of the major reason teeth are polished as part of a cleaning- to smooth the tooth surface. You are creating a kind of Catch-22- the more you scale, the more you are going to have to scale.
- Scaling causes the release of bacteria which can enter your pet’s bloodstream. For a pet with bad oral health that can be a lot of bacteria.Some pets may need antibiotics, but someone who is not a veterinarian would not be able to evaluate your pet’s health to see if they are needed or prescribe them if they are.
- In many states dental procedures are required to be done by a vet or under a veterinarian’s supervision. People who perform cleanings in states where the veterinary practice acts states this is the case can be considered practicing veterinary medicine without a license with a risk of fines or imprisonment. (The Pennsylvania Veterinary Practice Act considers anything that “diagnoses, treats, corrects, changes, relieves or prevents” dental conditions the practice of veterinary medicine. Practicing veterinary medicine without a license carries a penalty of a fine of $1,000 or a prison sentence of not more than six months or both a fine and prison for a first time offense. A second offense carries a fine of $2,000 or a prison sentence of six months to 1 year or both a fine and prison.). They aren’t going door to door to see if someone is scaling teeth in their home, but someone who is offering anesthesia-free dental care as a service could be in violation of their state’s law.
There may be times when a vet decides to do an anesthesia free dentistry on a pet for whom the risk of anesthesia far out ways the problems poor oral health can cause. Usually these are older pets with bad systemic problems and the odor from the periodontal disease is a huge problem, but again this is just a cosmetic issue, it won’t improve their oral health. For most pets, the potential problems from poor oral health out way the anesthetic risk.
Other Dental Products
If you go walking down the aisles at the pet store, you’ll find a variety of products that are suppose to help your pet’s teeth- rinses, water additives, chewies, treats, food. I am not an expert on these products and honestly, my mind tends to go to “well, if it really worked, my dentist would be recommending some of these things for me”. (I haven’t seen any tooth cleaning cookies on the market for people yet, have you?) Some of them do offer some benefits like chewies. Items that get chewed have some mechanical action that helps remove plaque, but the best thing to do is ask your vet for their opinion on the best product for your pet. And remember brushing is your best bet for maintaining your pet’s dental health.
Note: It’s important to remember that anything your dog chews that is hard like a marrow bone or cow hoof could cause your dog’s teeth to fracture or damage to the pulp or root of the tooth.
Dental care is one area we can really be proactive as owners. Just taking a few minutes each day to brush their teeth can pay off greatly in keeping them in good health.