Does your pet have a case of bad breath? If so, don’t blame Fluffy or Fido, area vets say. Good oral hygiene is an important part of your pet’s grooming, and this often-overlooked aspect of their care should start early.

“Dental disease is one of the most common diseases besides obesity in animals,” says Dr. Stacey Wallach of Town & Country Veterinary Hospital. “It’s a disease, not just bad breath problem. The bacteria in the mouth can affect the kidneys and liver, it can weaken the jaw bone and create jaw fractures, or if your pet gets abscesses, it can affect the nasal cavities or cause eye diseases. So much is hidden under the gum line: You could have perfectly healthy looking crowns and have really nasty looking roots.”

Getting Started

“With puppies and kittens, early on, their puppy teeth will be falling out and the adult ones coming in,” says Dr. Meagan Brophy of Webster Groves Animal Hospital. “What you want to watch out for is making sure all those baby teeth fall out. When they get spayed or neutered at about 6 months, you can remove any that don’t come out naturally.”

Beyond that, it’s a good idea to get your pet acclimated to brushing early on, as well. “When you get a new puppy, you start socializing them, and one of the first things you should be socializing with is dental care,” Wallach says. “Start them young so they get used to it as a normal part of their routine.”

To get maximum cooperation from your pet, Wallach recommends making it a positive experience—giving them attention and treats before and after brushing. To get your pet acclimated, she suggests getting them used to their mouth being handled in general first, and working up to brushing gradually. First steps can include lifting their lips, and rubbing the gums with your finger or a piece of gauze dipped in chicken broth. “Cats usually are more difficult than dogs, some will tolerate brushing, but we lean toward dental treats and oral rinses,” she says.

Making the process as appealing as possible is important, notes Dr. Steven Schwartz with Humane Society of Missouri. He recommends using a special brush designed for your pet’s size. And the taste of the toothpaste “is a huge factor,” he says. Meat-flavored options are often a hit. “Rule No. 1 is: Don’t get hurt. If you’re having a difficult time, consult your veterinarian and have them walk you through it.”

The goal is to brush every day, the veterinarians say, to remove the bio-film that gradually builds up before it creeps under the gums and rots the teeth at their roots. If daily brushing sounds daunting, Brophy says once a week is a good place to start. “As you get used to it, you can increase the frequency.” However, some form of at-home care is crucial. “Every six to eight weeks at the groomer is not going to do it,” Wallach notes.

Beyond the Brush

Just like humans brush and floss daily, with semi-annual trips to the dentist, pets benefit from a multi-pronged approach to dental care, as well. A wide range of toys, treats and food is available to help keep your pet’s choppers in fighting shape. The Veterinary Oral Health Council places its seal on products that are proven to benefit oral health, Brophy notes. It also lists helpful products on its website, vohc.org.

The right combination of products is dependent on your pet’s individual needs, but Brophy often recommends Hills Science Diet t/d kibble, which is designed to clean the teeth, for pets that don’t have other specific dietary needs. She also suggests rawhides for dogs that are not too aggressive in chewing them. “Some will go to town and break their teeth or swallow half of the rawhide,” she notes, adding that the rule of thumb for determining if a toy is too hard should be, “it’s something you can push down with your fingers like a tennis ball—you can push it in and it pops right back out.”

During their annual wellness exam, pets’ teeth should be examined to determine if there are any problems, or if cleaning is needed, Schwartz notes. Dental cleanings are similar to what is done for humans, but pets generally require heavy sedation or general anesthesia. As long as they are healthy enough for the procedure, a cleaning would include tooth scaling by hand or an electronic scaler to remove plaque and tartar. The teeth also are polished, and sometimes extractions are done for severely damaged teeth, he says. “In between visits, if you notice your dog is not eating or tilts its head by eating, or is pawing at the mouth, those are reasons to take a trip to the doctor. It’s better to look into these things sooner rather than later.”

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