Open Wide! Looking After Your Pet’s Dental Health

While we, as humans, regularly visit the dentist and religiously brush our teeth at least twice daily, it’s not always something that occurs to us when we’re caring for our pets. However, our pets’ dental health should be a bit higher up our priority list. It’s not about how they look – whether you’re caring for a cat, dog or rabbit they’re not chasing that Hollywood smile or a perfectly straight set of gnashers. No, the cosmetic element is really unimportant. But, having healthy teeth is really important for animals in lots of other ways.

Why do you need to look after your pet’s dental health?

Firstly, their teeth need to be in tip-top shape to allow them to eat well. Granted, this is less important for domestic animals whose food is served to them in a bowl, often from a pouch or tin, than it would be for their wild ancestors who’d have to hunt or find their food from nature, but having healthy teeth and gums is still vital for eating.

Secondly, having bad teeth and gums can lead to bacteria entering the body, a compromised immune response and an increased risk of certain illnesses such as endocarditis (a potentially fatal heart infection). According to the World Small Animal Veterinary Association the risk of developing this disease is a staggering six times higher in animals with bad teeth than in those with good oral health!

Thirdly, bad teeth can be painful for your pet – if you’ve ever had toothache you’ll be able to sympathise with this. As we all know, animals can’t vocalise what’s wrong so they could be living with pain for a while before you’re able to establish that there’s a problem and visit the vet to get it rectified. By the time the problem reaches this point, depending on the severity of the decay, this could result in an operation to remove the affected tooth/teeth which is not something you want to put your pet through if it’s at all avoidable.

Another reason is that bad teeth and gums can make your pet drool excessively and cause their breath to smell. Yep, it’s pretty antisocial and not pleasant for anyone – pets and owners included!

How should you care for your pet’s teeth?

So, dental care should be high up on your pet care list. But what does it entail? Well, just like us humans, dogs and cats should be having their teeth brushed! Yes, it may sound a bit unusual but it really should be part of their daily routine – and, if you can establish this habit when they’re young, they’ll soon get used to it (as will you)! You can’t use human toothpaste for animals, but dog and cat toothpastes are readily available. They’re not minty fresh like ours, but instead have a taste that’s more appealing to pets. Toothbrushing is best introduced when your pet is a kitten or pup so that it becomes familiar, but you can start at any age. They key is to start slowly … put a small amount of pet-appropriate toothpaste on your finger and offer it to their mouth so that they can sample the taste. Pick your moment to do this: when your pet’s calm, settled and happy, not hungry, tired or anxious! Keep doing the same daily, and work up to firstly moving your finger over their teeth, then introducing a brush (on their front teeth and canines first, over time moving on to their back teeth, too). Take the process bit-by-bit and do whatever your pet is happy and comfortable with. You may find they just lick the toothpaste at first, which is fine. You’ll eventually be able to build up to brushing. There’s no need to rinse and spit though!

Any amount of brushing will be better than none, and will help to eliminate some of the bacteria that can lead to plaque and tartar build-up, ultimately causing gum disease and tooth decay. If possible, aim for once or twice a day.

A product that we often use and recommend for both dogs and cats here at SLVC is ‘Plaque Off’, a natural product which you sprinkle on your pet’s food. It uses the ‘magical’ powers of nature, in the form of naturally occurring bacteria and enzymes found in seaweed, to prevent the build-up of plaque on teeth which, when left unchecked, can turn into tartar. As well as preventing the build-up of new plaque, it can also soften and remove existing plaque. It’s a very simple product to use (it comes in powdered form which you simply sprinkle over your pet’s dinner, and it enters their saliva, thus reaching parts of their mouth that are difficult to reach with a toothbrush) and it is 100% natural, with no added chemicals, colourings, flavours or preservatives but plenty of natural enzymes, vitamins and minerals. However, due to naturally high iodine content, it isn’t recommended for animals suffering from hyperthyroidism.

While I’d always be wary of ‘miracle products’ that claim to work magic on pets’ teeth and gums, and would usually advise people to steer clear of anything making such claims, this is one that really does as it says. It’s not designed as a replacement for toothbrushing but can work really well alongside it, or as a ‘better than nothing’ alternative for animals who really don’t take kindly to having their teeth brushed. It’s a product that’s highly recommended by owners and vets alike.

Of course, there are also chews that can help with keeping dogs’ teeth clean but be wary about how many of these you give to your pooch because excessive snacks, in addition to their regular diet, can lead to weight gain.

For rabbits, keeping those gnashers in tip top shape is equally important but is best done through their diet. Make sure they’ve got plenty of grass and hay to munch on and this should help with maintaining a healthy mouth and teeth. Give snacks like carrots sparingly as these have a high sugar content so can lead to both tooth problems and weight gain, neither of which make for a happy, hoppy, healthy bunny!

What should you do if you’re worried about your pet’s teeth or gums?

It’s a good idea to regularly check your pet’s teeth and gums, just to make sure everything looks ok. Gently open their mouth and have a quick peek inside. Again, we’re not looking for dazzling pearly whites here or a Simon Cowell style grin, but check for early warning signs of a problem (or, evidence of a more advanced dental issue). Gums should be pink and healthy-looking without any redness, bleeding, ulcers, lumps or visible tooth roots. Teeth should be smooth and white(ish), without hard brown tartar build up and with no cracks or obvious cavities. Their breath won’t be minty fresh, but it also shouldn’t make you wince! If you have any concerns at all about your pet’s dental health, get it checked out as soon as possible, as problems can always be dealt with more easily when they’re caught early. Advanced decay or gum disease can be difficult to treat and often, when it gets to a late stage, irreversible damage has already been done.

If your pet isn’t keen on you peering at their gnashers, or if you’re not confident about having a look, you can always pop them to the vet for a dental check-up. This is a quick, routine appointment where one of our experts will check the health of your pet’s teeth and gums. If we find that there’s anything wrong we can talk to you about treatment options which can be anything from dietary advice to teaching you how to brush your pet’s teeth, to a scale and polish or, at the end of the scale, dental surgery. It’s vital that you don’t ignore problems or underestimate the importance of keeping your pet’s mouth healthy though, for the sake of their overall health, happiness, wellbeing and, ultimately, their lifespan. For more information, you can read our Helper Sheet on Dental Disease (Periodontal Disease).

Right, talking of which, I’m off to give my three furry friends their daily tooth scrub! Ziggy! Poppy! Time to open wide!”