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Dental health essential for pets’ quality of life

February has been designated as National Pet Dental Health Month because pet dental care is fundamental for overall good health. While poor dental health can result in bad breath and pain associated with dental disease, poor oral health also has been linked to increased risk of heart, liver, and kidney problems.

More than 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats older than 2 years have periodontal disease. Periodontal disease is an inflammatory condition affecting the tissues of the mouth that support the teeth. With aging, the frequency of periodontal disease increases. Almost all dogs and cats by 5 years of age are affected, making periodontal disease the most common health problem seen in dogs and cats.

Good oral health for dogs and cats, just as for humans, requires eating good quality food, daily teeth brushing, regular dental checkups, and periodic dental cleanings. Ideally, plaque is removed daily by brushing. Plaque is a sticky combination of food particles, saliva and bacteria. When not removed, plaque hardens into tartar. Tartar is more difficult to remove.



Since plaque and tartar contain large amounts of bacteria and can build up along the gum line, the gums can become inflamed with long contact. Inflamed gum tissue appears red and swollen. Over time, the bacteria multiply and the inflammation can widen. Breakdown of the gum tissue from the inflammation and infection can progress to periodontal disease that includes damage to the periodontal ligament and even bone loss around the tooth. Further progression can result in infections affecting the root of the tooth. While there is some individual variability in susceptibility, some dog breeds like the pug, Yorkshire terrier, and Chihuahua are prone to periodontal disease.

Ideally, pets should be trained as puppies and kittens to allow their teeth to be brushed, but older pets can also be trained. Start simple by getting the pet accustomed to lifting their lip then gradually touching the teeth and gums. Placing a small amount of a food item like peanut butter on the finger can act as a reward to help the process of training.



The next step is to gently introduce the toothbrush. Use a toothbrush designed for pets. Some pets respond better to finger brushes or pads. Don’t rush the process — make it fun and give plenty of reward treats. Be cautious if your pet tends to bite. Toothpaste for dogs and cats can have appealing flavors like poultry or seafood and they are safe to swallow. Daily brushing is a lifelong health benefit and worth the effort.

If brushing just is not possible, many products are designed to remove or reduce plaque. These products can physically rub or scrape off the plaque when chewed. Some products add enzymes or other ingredients that can reduce the amount of bacteria and plaque formation.

The Veterinary Oral Health Council has developed criteria for accepting products that have been shown to reduce plaque. Look for their acceptance.

Keep in mind that not all available products have been reviewed by this group, so some basic guidelines for selecting chewable products is important. Avoid hard products like cooked bones or nylon. Chewing on these items can result in broken teeth. Depending on the personality of your pet, avoid products like rawhide chews or dried pig ears that can be partially chewed and swallowed in large pieces. The large pieces can cause chocking or even intestinal blockage. Choosing softer items that are flexible and have an irregular surface may fill the need for something to chew that can help to reduce the plaque. Crunchy foods and chew treats can also be helpful.

Nutritional support for the tissues in the mouth can help to reduce periodontal disease. Nutrients of interest include vitamin A for healthy mucous membranes and saliva flow; vitamin B12 for its ability to reduce periodontal disease progression; vitamin C for connective tissue repair and reduction in inflammation; vitamin D for calcium absorption, benefits for bones and growing teeth, and anti-inflammatory effects; and vitamin E for reducing inflammation in the mouth tissues.

It is not possible to keep the mouth completely clear of any plaque or tartar so periodic dental cleanings under anesthesia are necessary. The timing of these cleanings is based on recommendations from your veterinarian following an examination of your pet’s mouth.

Good oral care is essential for quality health. Contact your veterinarian if you have questions about your pet’s dental health and care.

Dr. Ron Carsten was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. In addition to his doctor of veterinary medicine, he holds a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and is a certified veterinary acupuncturist and certified canine rehabilitation therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.


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