By Dr. Becker
Many pets today have significant tartar build-up on their teeth. Fortunately, a growing number of pet parents are becoming aware of the problem and want to know how to maintain their furry family member’s teeth in good condition.
Tartar is plaque that has hardened. It irritates the gums, which become inflamed, causing a condition known as gingivitis.
Tartar can also build up under the gums, eventually causing them to pull away from the teeth. This creates small pockets in gum tissue that attract bacteria. The result is irreversible periodontal disease that is painful for the animal and can result in abscesses, infections, loose teeth and bone loss.
Clearly, the best approach to preserving your pet’s oral health is to proactively manage the plaque and tartar that accumulates on his teeth.
Controlling Tartar Build-up
Diet can play a significant role in the development of tartar on your pet’s teeth. Wild dogs have strong, healthy teeth partly because they eat raw meaty bones.
Raw diets – even prepared, ground raw diets – help control tartar. Raw ground bone is a gentle dental abrasive, acting like fine sandpaper when chewed, which helps remove debris stuck on teeth. The meat contains natural enzymes, and in addition, raw food doesn’t stick to teeth, unlike starchy kibble. Dry pet food is promoted as helping to keep teeth clean, but it’s a myth. Kibble is no better for your pet’s teeth than crunchy human food is for your teeth. It would never occur to you to eat a handful of peanut brittle to remove plaque and tartar from your teeth. The idea that dry food keeps your pet’s teeth clean is just as silly!
For dogs and cats, chewing also plays an important role in removing plaque and tartar from teeth. Even though there are plenty of toys and food products on the market that can be of some help (providing your pet will chew them), raw bones are really the best option, and few dogs will turn them down.
It’s important the bones are raw, because cooked bones can splinter and do serious damage to your pet’s GI tract. The size depends on the size of your pet and whether she’s such an eager chewer that she risks injuring herself or even breaking teeth. Your dog should always be supervised when she’s working on a bone to minimize the risk of choking or tooth damage, and raw bones should be refrigerated between chewing sessions.
Certain Pets Are Predisposed to Excessive Tartar Build-up
Some raw fed pets that also chew raw bones still accumulate tartar on their teeth. Brachycephalic (short-nosed) and toy breeds are often predisposed because their teeth don’t have normal alignment, and in the case of tiny dogs, there’s often a crowding problem. No matter how vigorously these dogs chew, it doesn’t remove all the plaque and tartar from their teeth.
Pets with chronic health conditions also seem to collect more tartar on their teeth. This could be due to less vigorous chewing, or it could be the result of changes in saliva quantity, gum health, the pH in the mouth, or other causes.
Many cats are also predisposed to have more tartar on their teeth, and kitties can present a special challenge because they don’t typically gnaw on bones like dogs do. Offering a skinless chicken neck may entice your cat to chew more, and provide enough mechanical abrasion to keep her teeth free from plaque build up.
Daily Tooth Brushing Is the Best Way to Insure Your Pet's Oral Health
With a gentle hand, patience and persistence, most pet owners can teach their dog or cat to submit to daily tooth brushing, which is the ideal way to insure tartar doesn’t form on your pet’s teeth.
One of the secrets to successful tooth brushing is to progress slowly and gently, allowing your pet to adapt at his own pace. Start with your finger rather than a toothbrush and get your pet familiar with having your finger in his mouth. Gently rub the top front teeth and all the way to the back teeth. Then do the same on the lower teeth. Praise your pet often and keep these sessions short.
Once your pet is accepting of the presence of your finger in his mouth, wrap a very thin damp cloth or piece of gauze around your fingertip and rub the teeth. You’ll probably be stunned by the amount of gunk you wipe off with just a piece of gauze.
The next step is to use a safe, natural dental cleaning product designed for pets and apply a small amount to the gauze before you rub your pet’s teeth. Once your pet gets used to this, you can progress to either a finger brush or a soft toothbrush the right size for your dog’s or cat’s mouth.
If your pet is highly resistant to having his teeth rubbed or brushed, there are products available that when applied to the teeth go to work to break down plaque and tartar without brushing. However, the more rubbing and brushing your pet will allow, the more quickly you’ll see results, and the easier it will be to maintain your pet’s oral health.
For Some Pets, Professional Dental Cleanings Are Unavoidable
If you’re vigilant about your pet’s dental home care and she doesn’t have any special situations that predispose her to tartar build-up or other dental issues, she may never need a professional cleaning by a veterinarian.
However, pets with extreme tartar build-up, badly inflamed gums, or oral infections need extra help. Digital dental x-rays can only be accomplished with sedated pets, and needless to say, tooth extractions must be done under anesthesia. Dental procedures performed on inflamed or infected teeth and gums are extremely painful for the animal, which is why anesthesia and pain management are necessary.
Despite the growing popularity of non-professional dental scaling (NPDS), it has limited application and the results can be misleading for pet owners who don’t understand that the most serious problems in a pet’s mouth usually occur below the gum line. In addition, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), as of November 1, 2013, requires all its accredited veterinary clinics to anesthetize and intubate patients for dental procedures.
With all that said, there are situations in which it may be entirely appropriate for a qualified technician to scale your pet’s teeth -- for example, if you practice good home care, you take your pet for regular veterinary wellness exams, and your dog or cat has only a mild amount of tartar accumulation. In my practice, I occasionally remove plaque and tartar from a pet’s teeth without using anesthesia. I only do this with pets for which I have a dental history, and I don’t do it in lieu of a thorough dental exam. But if, for example, I have a patient with a large chunk of tartar causing irritation in his mouth, I’ll remove it without anesthesia if I can do it easily and without stressing the patient.