February marks National Pet Dental Health Month, a great chance to brush up on how best to care for your animal companion’s teeth and gums. Below, Graham Thatcher, clinical assistant professor of dentistry and oral surgery at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, shares his top tips for pet owners. (Editor’s note: Thatcher has since departed UW Veterinary Care and the School of Veterinary Medicine.)
Why is dental health important to a pet’s overall health?
The mouth is one of the gateways to all other body systems. Poor oral hygiene and poor oral health have repeatedly been linked to poor health in other organ systems and poor general health in the human and veterinary literature.
Some of the gingival (gum) tissues are unique in that they are inherently “leaky.” When they become inflamed, the leakiness increases. This becomes an increased means for plaque bacteria to enter the bloodstream and shower other areas of the body with bacterial pathogens originating in the mouth.
What is the number one thing you would want pet owners to know to help protect their pet’s teeth?
I want all pet owners to understand that their pet’s oral health and progression to disease is very similar to their own oral conditions. The recommendation is always for comprehensive oral health assessments annually with a qualified veterinarian, in addition to daily tooth brushing.
What specific advice can you offer with regard to tooth brushing?
Dogs and cats will tolerate tooth brushing if it is non-painful and it is accompanied by a reward. I recommend starting with short periods of massaging the gums with the finger and moving up to a soft-bristled toothbrush. Focus should be on the cheek-side of the teeth, as this is where more of the plaque accumulates.
If toothpaste is used, I would recommend a pet-specific toothpaste that does not have added fluoride since pets will likely swallow some of the paste. Fluoride can reach toxic levels if ingested. Additionally, I would recommend only using products that have the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval. These products can be found at vohc.org.
Are dental bones and chews or dental wipes effective in cleaning pets’ teeth?
Bones and dental chews can be effective at helping to assist with oral hygiene, however using hard objects comes with a huge risk. We never recommend giving bones, antlers or bully sticks (dried bull penises) to a pet as chews, since they commonly result in dental fractures that can be painful and costly to repair.
As a rule of thumb, if you can bend or flex the object, it is less likely to fracture a tooth. Additionally, if something is too hard for you to chew, then you should not allow your pet to chew it.
Dental wipes have been marketed to pets and while there may be some benefit, there is no replacement for regularly brushing with a soft-bristled toothbrush.
Are there things you would ask pet owners not to do when it comes to caring for their pet’s teeth?
We highly discourage pet owners from offering hard objects as an adjunct to daily tooth brushing and annual professional care, as the risks of dental fracture are very high. We also discourage pet owners from having dental care without the use of a safe general anesthetic protocol administered and monitored under the supervision of a qualified veterinarian. “Anesthesia-free” and “anesthesia-light” dental procedures have been gaining in popularity, which plays on the owner’s fears of anesthesia. Anesthesia is absolutely necessary for safe dental scaling and dental procedures.
We also need to adopt a preventative approach to periodontal or gum diseases. Historically, veterinarians have recommended waiting until signs of disease such as gum swelling and bleeding, fractured teeth, bad breath and heavy plaque and tartar are noted on the conscious oral evaluation. We recommend that general anesthesia and intra-oral radiographs be performed in addition to skillful prophylactic dental cleaning even when there are no overt signs of disease.
If someone is reluctant to pursue a dental cleaning or other dentistry procedure for their pet, what words of assurance might you offer?
Veterinary teams are regularly presented with pet owners that are reluctant to do dental procedures such as comprehensive oral health assessments, including intra-oral radiography, due to the fear of anesthesia, costs and the possibility of finding pathology that requires treatment. A comparison to the prevention of periodontal diseases in the human population is often discussed, as it is natural to lose teeth. The problem is that tooth loss comes with a degree of suffering and general illness that can be prevented.
We will reassure pet owners that a board-certified veterinary anesthesiologist can be consulted and present for procedures, including those that come with some heightened risks. Referring clients to a board-certified veterinary dentist, such as those at UW Veterinary Care, may be warranted for not only severe and unique disease presentations but also those clients who are in need of additional reassurance as to the safety of the procedure.
Anything else you’d want to share with pet owners?
There are prescription dental diets and other products that have been shown to be beneficial to general oral health. I highly recommend asking a qualified veterinarian for a conscious oral evaluation at every annual or semi-annual visit.
Additionally, safe and effective products that can supplement the daily tooth brushing and annual professional dental care can be found at vohc.org. The Veterinary Oral Heath Council has done due diligence to evaluate the safety and efficacy of the listed products.
Veterinary dentistry is one of the most rewarding professions. The success of procedures and client satisfaction is overwhelmingly high. Imagine coming to work every single day knowing that you are having a tangible and highly positive impact on your patients’ well-being – that’s simply what we do!