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Can You Impact Your Pet's Health by Brushing Their Teeth?

August 27, 2009 | 36,573 views
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pets, teeth, dental healthAs part of Pet Dental Health month, Hill's Pet Nutrition Inc. is co-sponsoring the 15th annual Pets Need Dental Care, Too™ campaign to encourage veterinary health care teams to talk with clients about scheduling regular dental appointments for their pets and to establish an at-home dental-care routine.

Oral disease is the most frequently diagnosed health problem for pets. In addition, 65 percent of dogs with Stage 1 periodontal disease often go untreated because come veterinary teams don't recommend needed treatment options like dental exams, professional dental cleaning and dental X-rays, the company reports.

"Regular preventive dental care includes oral home care by the pet owner and routine professional dental care. The expenses associated with professional dental treatment may be significant.”

To help veterinary health-care teams, Hill's made Pet Dental Health Campaign kits available to veterinary hospitals around the country.

"Hill's is pleased to stand with our dental partners in this continued mission to help pets get the best in oral health," says Janet Donlin, DVM, chief of the veterinary business channel at Hill's Pet Nutrition.

Dr. Becker's Comments:

NOTICE: I’d like to clarify a couple of points to address a number of reader’s comments below.

First, it must be understood that although I’m commenting on an article about Hills Pet Nutrition Inc., I do NOT endorse Hills Pet Nutrition or their products, nor do I recommend kibble or rendered pet food in general, by any brand.  

It’s best if you NEVER feed kibble, as I’ve stated in previous articles. I’m a firm advocate of feeding your pet a species appropriate, RAW diet, as it is the best way to ensure your pet will be as healthy as possible. For more information about my dietary recommendations, please read this previous article.

That said, pet dental care is still an important issue. A fresh food diet can greatly reduce dental disease, yes, but many animals will need dental attention at some point in their life. Taking charge of your pet’s dental health at home, which includes feeding him fresh foods and brushing his teeth, you can minimize the necessity for any of the procedures described below.

Caring for your pet’s health is much like caring for your own. If you eat a wholly organic, raw, whole food diet, would it be prudent to simply throw away your toothbrush and never pay any attention to your oral health? I believe most people would agree that cleaning your teeth is still a good idea, even if your diet is perfect.

So, my point is: feed your pet a healthy, species appropriate, raw food diet, and also pay attention to your pet’s oral health in order to maximize her health and longevity.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and other veterinary organizations are campaigning for dental health for good reason. Dental care of dogs and cats is one of the most commonly overlooked areas of pet health care.

A recent American Animal Health Association (AAHA) study (cited by Healthpet.com) showed that approximately two-thirds of pet owners do not provide the basic dental care that is recommended by their veterinarians. This is a major reason for why 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats show signs of significant oral diseases by age three.

When your pet develops dental disease, it can have far worse consequences than bad breath. It can lead to serious health problems including heart, lung, and kidney disease. For this reason, the AAHA developed comprehensive dental care guidelines for dogs and cats.

According to Daniel S. Aja, DVM and president of AAHA,

“Pets can live longer, healthier lives if oral health care is managed and maintained throughout their lives.”

Periodontal Disease

Periodontal disease is an infection of the tissues surrounding the teeth that takes hold in stages, in much the same way as with you and me.

It starts out with formation of a bacterial film on the teeth called plaque. When the bacteria die, they become calcified by calcium in saliva, forming a hard, rough substance called tartar or calculus. This then provides a substrate upon which more plaque can accumulate.

If left to spread, plaque can lead to inflammation of the gums, causing them to be red and swollen and bleed easily, a condition known as gingivitis. If tartar buildup continues unchecked, infection can form around the roots of the teeth and below the gum line.

In the final stages of periodontal disease, the tissues surrounding the teeth are destroyed, the bony socket holding the tooth erodes and the tooth becomes loose. This is a very painful process for your pet -- but fortunately, it is preventable.

You can easily avert these problems before they start.

Dental Care Begins With Your Vet’s Exam

When you take your puppy or kitten to the vet for that first exam, it should include an oral examination. Good dental care should begin as early as possible.

When examining your puppy or kitten, your vet should look for problems with the deciduous (baby) teeth, missing or extra teeth, swollen gums, oral tumors and developmental abnormalities. This can be done easily while your pet is awake and only takes a moment.

As your pet ages, oral exams should be a regular part of your pet’s wellness visits.

If your pet has tartar buildup and needs a dental cleaning, it must be done under anesthesia by a veterinary professional, for your pet’s safety. A pre-anesthesia exam needs to be done, which typically includes urine and blood tests andelectrocardiograph to make sure your pet is healthy enough to undergo anesthesia.

All medical procedures carry some risk, but anesthesia is generally pretty safe for your pet, particularly if the recommended pre-anesthesia exam is done.

During a dental cleaning, your veterinarian will use dental instruments similar to those your dentist has used on you,but your pet will be asleep. X-rays might be taken to completely visualize structures that cannot be detected by eye, and to identify tooth root problems that must be addressed during the procedure. Your pet’s teeth will be scaled and polished with a special paste.

The AAHA recommends dental cleanings annually, starting at one year of age for cats and small-breed dogs, and two years of age for large-breed dogs. However, you have the ability to minimize the frequency of these procedures by feeding a species appropriate diet and taking charge of your pet’s dental health at home.

The less often your cat or dog has to have a medical procedure, the less risk he is exposed to overall.

Brushing Your Teeth, and Fluffy’s Too

As a pet owner, you play a pivotal role in helping your pet’s dental health through regular teeth brushing.

Before you roll you eyes and navigate to a less traumatizing article, realize that brushing your dog’s or cat’s teeth is not as difficult as you might imagine. You can learn how to do it in a way that is not traumatic, unpleasant or extraordinarily time consuming.

All it takes is some reliable information and a little patience. Isn’t Fluffy worth it?

A good start is to regularly examine your pet’s teeth at home for signs of periodontal disease:

  • Brownish teeth, accumulation of debris along the gumline

  • Swollen, red or bleeding gums

  • Persistent bad breath

  • Loose, teeth or missing teeth

  • Pus between the gums and mouth

  • Any unusual growth in the mouth

Other signs of oral and dental diseases in dogs and cats may include:

  • Reluctance to eat, drink cold water, or play with chew toys

  • Bad breath

  • Shying away from you when you touch the mouth area

  • Drooling, or dropping food from the mouth

  • Bleeding from the mouth

  • Loss of appetite or loss of weight (this can result from many diseases, and early veterinary examination is important)

If you notice any of these signs or are concerned about anything you see, you should contact your vet.

Brushing should be done daily, if possible. It is easiest to begin brushing when your pet is very young, since that is when he is most adaptable. However, even old dogs can be taught new tricks if they are eased into it with plenty of praise and reassurance—and a reward system, of course.

If your pet has had a dental procedure, be sure to wait 10 days for his gums to fully heal before beginning a brushing routine.

There are a number of suggestions out there for diving into a tooth-brushing program. All of the good ones have one thing in common: start gradually so that your pet can get used to the process. If your pet is reluctant about a brush, begin by wrapping your finger in gauze. Apply your pet toothpaste to the gauze and focus on only a few teeth daily, not the whole mouth. Once your pet has accepted this gentle approach you can switch to a brush.

Using the special toothbrushes and toothpastes developed specifically for dogs and cats, rather than human supplies, will make your task infinitely easier.

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has come out with an excellent training video called Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth. It explains a 4-week training program that gradually prepares your cat to tolerate and even enjoy the daily brushing routine. The video is well done and worth watching, proving that cats can indeed be trained to tolerate having their teeth brushed--with no bloodshed by either party.

Although the video is specifically dedicated to cats, I see no reason the program could not be used for dogs.

Anesthesia-Free Dentistry, aka Non-Professional Dental Scaling (NPDS)

Due to concerns about general anesthesia risk, certain individuals (some of whom are groomers and breeders) have begun offering dental scaling without anesthesia. Well-meaning though they may be, performing NPDS on pets is inappropriate for four main reasons:

  1. Scaling to remove tartar requires hand instruments that have a sharp edge, so even a slight head movement by your pet could result in oral injury.

  2. Professional scaling requires cleaning the surfaces of teeth below the gum line, between the gum and the roots, where periodontal disease is most active. This can only be done safely if your pet is anesthetized. Removal of tartar on the visible surfaces of the teeth is purely cosmetic and has minimal benefit for your pet’s health.

  3. Inhalation anesthesia has important advantages, including ensuring cooperation by your pet with a procedure it doesn’t understand, thereby reducing stress for your pet, minimization of pain, and protection from accidental aspiration.

  4. A complete oral examination can only be done by a veterinary professional with your pet sedated, since surfaces facing the tongue cannot be visualized while awake.

For these reasons, please do not consider taking your beloved pet to one of these “anesthesia-free” providers. The risks far outweigh the benefits.

This is not to understate the risk of general anesthesia, which should only be used for truly necessary procedures.

The best way to avoid anesthesia is to take good care of your pet’s teeth in the first place. Subjecting your pet to folks who mean well but lack professional training is not the solution.

Remember the proverbial ounce of prevention!

[+] Sources and References

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Food Democracy Now
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Fluoride Action Network
National Vaccine Information Center
Institute for Responsible Technology
Organic Consumers Association
Center for Nutrtion Advocacy
Cornucopia Institute
Vitamin D Council
GrassrootsHealth - Vitamin D*action
Alliance for Natural Health USA
American Holistic Veterinary Medical Foundation
The Rabies Challenge Fund
Cropped Catis Mexico