I didn't know it and you might not know it -- but it really is important to brush your cat's or dog's teeth. Dental problems can be painful and have negative effects on an animal's life - just as with humans. Dr. William Rosenblad, DVM of the Dentistry Team at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, offered Care.com the following information and tips regarding dental care for cats and dogs.
Care.com: Do both cats and dogs require regular, at-home dental care? If so, what is needed?
Dr. Rosenblad: Dental disease, particularly periodontal disease, is the most common disease of cats and dogs. Since plaque, which will harden into calculus ("tartar"), builds up every day, the best home dental care is daily tooth brushing. An appropriately sized tooth brush and veterinary toothpaste are all that is needed.
Care.com: Are there particular breeds of cats or dogs that are more prone to dental problems?
Dr. Rosenblad: Smaller dogs are the most prone to periodontal disease due to the crowding of their teeth. They are less likely to recreationally chew and more likely to be fed non-crunchy food, both of which would be helpful in slowing down the progression of dental disease. Larger dogs are often given hard objects (bones, hooves, very hard toys) that can cause teeth to fracture, leading to tooth abscesses (painful infections). In addition to periodontal disease, cats can get resorptive lesions (progressive destructive tooth lesions of unknown cause). These lesions are common in all cats (over 60 percent), but even more common in pure-bred cats such as Siamese and Maine Coon Cats.
Care.com: What kinds of products are available to help dog and cat guardians care for their pets' teeth?
Dr. Rosenblad: Special tooth brushes for cats and smaller dogs can make tooth brushing much easier and more efficient. Flavored toothpastes can make brushing time seem like treat time for many pets.
Care.com: Are there specific foods or treats that will help maintain good dental health for either dogs or cats?
Dr. Rosenblad: Appropriate chew treats and toys, such as crunchy biscuits, rawhides, rope toys, can encourage chewing, which can reduce plaque and calculus buildup. Look for foods and products with the VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council) seal of approval. The act of chewing, in addition to being a fun activity for many pets, gets the teeth working and increases saliva flow, both of which help keep teeth and gums healthier.
Care.com: Let's face it -- most pet lovers never brush their animals' teeth. Is this really a bad thing?
Dr. Rosenblad: Actually, not brushing is a bad thing. Daily tooth brushing is the best way for pet owners to help keep their animals' teeth and gums healthy. The daily removal of plaque with a brush will prevent or reduce calculus ("tartar") formation, gingivitis, gum recession, can be a bonding experience between pet and owner, and takes less than one minute a day.
Care.com: What symptoms should people be aware of that might indicate their pet has a dental problem?
Dr. Rosenblad: Halitosis, "bad breath," is the most common symptom, along with calculus buildup on the teeth. The bad breath and dirty-looking teeth are signs of periodontal disease, an infection of the gums and other structures that hold the teeth in place. Decreased or slower eating of dry food and crunchy treats, decreased activity, increased sleeping, restless sleeping, vomiting (especially undigested food) are among the more common signs of dental disease. Unfortunately, most pets are good at masking signs of pain and infection, so a thorough oral exam by a veterinarian may be needed in order to diagnose dental disease.
Care.com: What can happen if a dental problem is ignored?
Dr. Rosenblad: If ignored, dental disease always continues to progress, eventually leading to tooth loss, jaw infections (even jaw fractures), malnutrition (due to poor eating) and possibly systemic disease, such as kidney, liver or heart disease. In humans, infections of the brain, heart, liver, kidney, and lungs, as well as joint, skin, and pregnancy problems, have all been linked to dental disease. We are beginning to find those same connections in cats and dogs.
Care.com: How often should a dog's or cat's teeth be professionally cleaned?
Dr. Rosenblad: As often as necessary. Smaller dogs may need more frequent cleanings than larger dogs. Pets whose teeth are brushed regularly and eat dry food and crunchy treats will need less frequent cleanings. A proper dental cleaning requires general anesthesia and the use of dental radiographs ("X-rays") by a veterinarian. Properly performed anesthesia with good monitoring is safer than letting dental disease progress.
Care.com: Are there increased risks of infection due to dog bites if a pet's teeth are not cleaned?
Dr. Rosenblad: Hundreds of bacteria normally live in any pets' mouth, and some are potentially more likely to cause a bad infection in a bite situation. There is some increased risk of infection after being bitten by a pet with dental disease, but not significantly so compared to a pet with a "clean" mouth.
Care.com: How can you be sure your pet, in general, has a healthy mouth?
Dr. Rosenblad: A pet with a healthy mouth will have nice, clean, white teeth and light pink gums and should be happy to chew crunchy food and treats. Good oral exams as part of regular veterinary checkups. Appropriate cleanings by a veterinarian, chewing dry food and crunchy treats, and daily tooth brushing are the best way to maintain a pets' healthy mouth.
We have always had our cats' teeth checked regularly in annual exams, and cleaned professionally when needed. After learning so much from Dr. Rosenblad, I guess it's time to bite the bullet -- if not a crunchy treat -- and buy some feline toothbrushes!
For more information on this topic, go to petplace.com (especially How to brush your cat's teeth and What is dental tartar and how do I prevent it in cats?) and American Veterinary Dental College.
Faye Rapoport DesPres writes about pet care issues for Care.com and other publications. She has five cats and a website at ourplacetopaws.com.