Dental care for your pet

We spoke to Fulham veterinary nurse Rosie Martin and found out her most essential tips to ensure that your pet avoids dental disease…

Smile! Looking after our teeth is second nature to us. It’s been drilled into us from as early as we can remember to brush our teeth twice daily, to use mouthwash, to avoid sweets and fizzy drinks and to take care of our teeth as (my mother used to tell me often) once they’re gone, they’re gone.
The same should be said for our dog’s and cat’s teeth as well. This image often conjures up comedic scenarios in which an owner runs around hopelessly after their dog, toothbrush and toothpaste in hand, while the dog spits minty foam everywhere and has a great laugh at the poor owner’s expense. However, bad dental hygiene and the associated health conditions for our pets is no laughing matter.
Dental disease is one of the commonest reasons a pet will need to see a vet. As a disease, the symptoms are often overlooked by owners, normally because toothbrushes and pets are not normally associated together or owners are misreading the signs. It’s always a good idea to check your pet’s teeth regularly and book in with your vet if you become concerned about dental disease.

What is dental disease?
Dental disease is caused by a build-up of plaque and tartar on your pet’s teeth and gums. Every time your pet eats, bacteria multiply in the mouth and form a yellowish film on the teeth called plaque. Over time, the plaque hardens and forms tartar (or calculus). The tartar brings with it a host of problems, including;

  • Gingivitis (inflammation of the gums)
  • Damage to tooth enamel
  • A clingy surface for more bacteria to stick to

Eventually, the tartar build-up can lead to dental pain when eating (characterised by one-sided chewing, yelping when eating, shying away from food or even becoming fearful of the food bowl because the pet associates food with pain).
Dental disease can also be a cause of bad breath (halitosis). Under normal, healthy circumstances your pet’s breath shouldn’t be offensive to you. At worst, it will smell like what they’ve just eaten! Some owners put their dog’s bad breath down to ‘that doggy smell’ when it fact it could be a symptom of something much more sinister.
If left untreated, dental disease can progress even further. The gums have an excellent blood supply and if the bacteria build-up in the mouth is left to flourish it can infect the rest of the body, causing organ failure. Signs of dental disease include;

  • Redness of the gums
  • Scratching at the face
  • One-sided/awkward chewing
  • Inappetence
  • Pain when touching the face
  • Licking/lip-smacking
  • Excessive drooling
  • Becoming apprehensive of the food bowl
  • Bad breath
  • Generally under the weather  or grumpy (tooth pain is, well, painful!)

What can be done about dental disease?
There is good news however! Dental disease is preventable and, to some extent, treatable. The trick is to start early. The earlier you start your dental care program with your puppy or kitten, the better, although these dental care steps can be initiated in a dog or cat of any age. Follow these steps to ensure your pet has a lovely bright smile and a healthy outlook!

  1. Buy your pet some need specially designed pet toothpaste. Human toothpaste contains fluoride which isn’t good for dogs and cats. It also contains foaming agents which are designed to be spat out, but clearly our canine and feline friends don’t know how to do this! Your vet or vet nurse will be able to advise you on the pet toothpaste for your pet. Look for a brand that is enzymatic – this means the toothpaste continues to work after you’ve finished brushing. Pet toothpastes also come in a variety of flavours, including poultry, fish and malt. It may take some trial and error to find out which flavour your pet likes best, which leads me on to the next step…
  2. Get your pet used to the taste and texture of toothpaste by offering it to him every day on the end of your finger or in his food bowl and reward him with lots of vocal and contact praise when he licks it up. This way, your pet believes he is doing something genuinely good for you when he takes the toothpaste, meaning he’ll be more likely to want to do it!
  3. While your pet gets used to toothpaste, also get him used to you touching his gums and teeth. With your cat or dog facing away from you in the sit position, with you behind him, gently lift the upper lips on both sides of the mouth and carefully touch the front teeth (incisors) and canines. Do this once or twice daily for as long as it takes for your pet to become comfortable, but stop if your pet becomes very stressed and as always, be careful not to get bitten! Don’t worry about reaching the back teeth at this stage – you need to get your pet used to having his teeth and gums touched and for most pets this is a strange new experience for them
  4. Once your pet is comfortable having his teeth touched, you can try rubbing some toothpaste onto his teeth. You can do this using your finger, a piece of muslin cloth or a specially designed finger toothbrush, available from your vet or pet shop.
  5. Once your pet is comfortable with brushing the front teeth, try brushing the back teeth (pre-molars and molars).
  6. Always, always reward your pet after any dental session. Make him feel like he’s done something really good for you and that you’re pleased with him. This will make him want to do it again and again!

Your vet or vet nurse can also show you how to brush your pet’s teeth and will be able to recommend a suitable pet toothpaste.
Daily tooth brushing is the gold standard in pet dental care. However, for some pets tooth brushing is just not an option. This could be because the pet finds it uncomfortable, is an older pet and has never experienced it before or the owner may not be able to do it. If this is the case, there are other things you can do to keep your pet’s teeth clean and healthy:

  • Use dental chews daily. The best time to give your dog a dental chew is after the evening meal. Squirt some enzymatic toothpaste onto the chew as this will make it even more effective. Look for dental chews that contain chlorhexidine which has an antibacterial action (it’s the same ingredient that’s found in the human mouthwash Corsodyl).
  • Consider adding specially-designed dental biscuits into your dog’s diet. These unique diets, available from your vet, act as mini-toothbrushes helping to clean away plaque as your dog or cat chews. The diets can be fed on their own as a complete diet, or added to your pet’s daily allowance of food as a treat. Always remember to reduce the amount of your pet’s regular diet if you’re using treats though!
  • Use a water additive which helps to break down bacteria in the mouth. These flavourless additives are simply mixed with your pet’s normal water on a daily basis to help combat dental disease. Ask your vet for more information.

dental care

What happens if your pet already has a build-up of plaque?
Sadly, plaque cannot be removed without the aid of an ultrasonic scaler (the same thing used by human dental hygienists). If your vet has recommended a dental scale and polish for your pet, he will need a full general anaesthetic as dogs and cats aren’t very good at sitting still for dental work!
Plaque and tartar is removed from the teeth using the ultrasonic scaler and then the tooth surfaces are polished using a special toothpaste which helps create a smooth tooth surface which is more resistant to bacterial build-up. Your vet may prescribe a course of antibiotics for your pet after the procedure, depending on how bad the mouth was. It is vitally important to finish any antibiotic course your vet prescribes to ensure that any infection is cleared up and to protect the mouth after the procedure.
Your vet may also recommend that your pet has some teeth removed if the dental disease has progressed so much that the tooth becomes damaged. Don’t worry though! Your pet will feel a lot better without the painful tooth (or teeth) and nearly all pets manage to eat perfectly well after having teeth removed, including crunching down on biscuits!
After the procedure, your pet will need a little extra TLC for a few days. He will be a bit wobbly from the anaesthetic and may also have been prescribed medication and/or a special diet. Your vet or vet nurse will be happy to go through the procedure and all the after-care instructions with you if you’re concerned.

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