Looking after our pets’ teeth is just as important as looking after our own teeth. However, given they are unable to brush their own teeth twice daily or take themselves for six monthly dental health checks it is even more important that, as pet owners, we are aware of how to prevent dental disease and why this is important.

by Matthew Erskine, BSAVA Volunteer

Periodontal disease, the progressive inflammation of the supporting structures of the teeth, is the most common disease affecting dogs and cats. It is reported that by two years of age, 70% of cats and 80% of dogs will be affected by this to some degree. It is caused by the build up of food particles and bacteria which produce plaque.
This plaque then hardens and solidifies over time producing calculus which can be seen as a discolouration on the surface of the teeth and leads to yet further plaque formation. Therefore, keeping plaque levels as low as possible is an important step in reducing the amount of periodontal disease in our dogs and cats. This is even more important given the bacterial load and inflammation involved in periodontal disease has been shown to be linked to several other conditions both in people and pets including heart, liver, lung and kidney disease, as well as diabetes and early mortality.
Unfortunately, signs of this periodontal disease are not usually seen until they are very advanced as both dogs and cats will simply put up with large amounts of dental pain before they will stop or change how they eat. There are therefore several other signs that pet owners must look for in order to identify problems before they become severe. Things to look out for include bad breath, discoloured teeth, reddened or bleeding gums, loose teeth, reduced appetite, changes in chewing, drooling and swellings around the mouth. However many of these signs are also not seen until later stages in the disease and can be difficult to identify which is why regular six monthly or yearly dental health checks with your veterinary surgeon are also important.

DENTAL CARE IN PUPPIES AND KITTENS

In puppies and kittens owners should be aware of several things to look out for that are important in preventing future dental disease. These include misalignment of the jaws, extra teeth or retained baby teeth and wrongly positioned teeth. All of these conditions can make dental disease more likely or cause damage to the gums. Your veterinary surgeon will guide you regarding treatment required for these conditions.
At this young age owners should start getting their pets used to brushing of teeth which has been shown to be the most effective way of reducing plaque levels in dogs and cats. Whilst it is not necessary to keep the baby teeth clean as they will be lost, it is the perfect time to start using a toothbrush on your pet as it is not essential that you do a great job but will get them used to the sensation.

DENTAL CARE IN ADULT DOGS AND CATS

It is just as important, if not more important to up keep good dental care in adult dogs and cats. As dogs and cats age they are more likely to develop other dental or oral conditions so it is still important to regularly check their mouths. Other than periodontal disease, conditions including broken or worn teeth and gum growths can often be seen and are often best diagnosed by veterinary surgeons at routine dental health checks.
Daily brushing is still the gold standard for maintaining good dental health. However, the other main option for active homecare is the application of antiseptic gels or solutions which contain chlorhexidine. These products are safe and have a lasting effect against plaque but are generally not as palatable as toothpaste so can be harder to apply.

THE KEY TO SUCCESSFUL BRUSHING…

Start early: Young patients are more amenable to training.
Go slow: Start with just holding the mouth and then progress to a finger and finally
start brushing slowly.
Be consistent: Make this a learned behaviour.
Make it positive: Using food, treats, or playtime as a reward will greatly increase the likelihood of acceptance.
It is not always essential to start with a toothbrush and instead a gauze or washcloth can be used to get them used to having something in their mouth however this is not recommended long term as it will not clean below the gum line.
Once your kitten or puppy is used to this and looks forward to getting treats or rewards for the cleaning you can progress to brushing with either a dog/cat specific brush or a human child’s toothbrush which can be smaller and easier to use. Your veterinary surgeon can demonstrate the best technique for brushing your dog or cat’s teeth.
Brushing should ideally be once a day however three days a week is considered the minimum frequency for patients in good oral health.
Toothpaste choice is largely a matter of personal preference as many will contain differing flavours or textures. However the mechanical brushing is the factor that will reduce the plaque levels the most therefore the paste itself is not as important. Human toothpaste should be avoided though as these can be toxic to cats and dogs due to the presence of detergents or fluoride.

DIETS

Dry diets are generally said to be better at reducing dental disease than wet diets and there is some evidence for this, especially comparing these against homemade diets however the effect is minimal and large amounts of plaque and tartar will typically still build up.
Prescription dental diets which are designed to have larger kibble size, improved texture and increased fibre content have been shown to reduce plaque by up to 33% in some cases when compared against a normal commercial diet. They are ideally designed to be fed as the main food source but still show some effect when fed as a proportion of the total diet.

DENTAL TREATS

Not all dental chews are the same and, although some of these will show similar effects in reduction of plaque compared with the dental diets, care must be taken when choosing the best product. Generally products that have the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval on their labelling have proven benefit and safety. It is important to remember the added calories that dental chews can contribute to your dog or cat’s daily intake, potentially increasing the risk of pet obesity.

There are serious risks of chews such as rawhides, bones and antlers which include gastrointestinal upsets or blockages and tooth fractures and therefore these should be avoided.

NATURAL DIETS

Feeding raw meat and bones has been proposed to help reduce the incidence of periodontal disease in dogs and cats however as there are currently no published studies that support this. Some studies have shown a reduction in the calculus build up in cats and dogs fed these diets however this has not led to reduced periodontal disease or plaque build up. There are risks associated with these diets including the possibility of fracturing teeth as well as the spread of diseases that can affect both dogs and humans such as salmonellosis.

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