Pets use their teeth for very different things than us — like catching balls, gnawing on bones and chewing on plants (we’re looking at you, cats). But when it comes to periodontal disease, they have the same problems we do.
Without regular cleaning, a bacterial film of plaque builds up and infects the teeth and gums. If it’s not brushed away, it hardens into calculus, which leads to gingivitis, bone loss in the jaw, loose teeth and chronic pain.
If left untreated, it can lead to major problems like heart disease.
The bacteria that cause dental disease can spread to the heart, liver and kidneys to cause more damage. In fact, the risk of heart problems is about six times higher in dogs with stage three periodontal disease than for dogs without it.
80% of cats and dogs show signs of dental disease by age 3.
But pets are very good at hiding it, so you might not even notice. Look for signs like increasingly worse breath, loose or broken teeth, excessive drooling and sensitivity around the mouth. You may also notice changes in behavior like only chewing on one side of the mouth, no longer wanting to chew on toys, or a lack of interest in food.
Pets should brush almost as often as you do.
That’s right, at least five days a week with a dog or cat specific toothpaste (human ones contain xylitol, which is toxic to animals). Brushing their teeth may not be the most fun either of you ever had, but we can at least help you make it as effective and quick as possible.
Start them young.
Puppies and kittens are delightfully trusting. If you start brushing their teeth daily from the beginning, they’ll accept it as just another strange part of life with humans, like going in a box full of litter or walking around tethered to a piece of fabric.
Try some Chicken-flavored toothpaste.
Ew, not you, your pet. Cat and dog toothpaste comes in a variety of savory flavors, but here’s the trick— use it as a treat. Offer them a little on your finger. If they like it, graduate to rubbing it on their gums. And never give them human toothpaste (or any other dental products). If swallowed, it’s very harmful for them.
Don’t go in brushes blazing.
Practice gently opening your pet’s jaw, supporting their head and touching their teeth to get them used to fingers in their mouth. While you’re at it, note any darkened or loose teeth as a sign to see the dentist as it can be a sign of dental disease. Next, try a finger brush or a washcloth over your finger. If all goes well, you’re ready for a real pet toothbrush. Smaller to fit in pets’ mouths, some are also double-sided to brush both sides of their teeth at once.
Easy does it.
Your dog or cat is as nervous as you are, so the most important thing is to reduce their anxiety. Approach them in a non-threatening way (i.e. kneeling beside them or cradling them rather than holding them down), and never try to force the situation. Let them sniff the brush and even lick some toothpaste off it. Start by brushing in small circles along the outer side of their teeth with the toothbrush at a 45-degree angle to the gum line. Be sure to reach the back upper molars and canines, where lots of tartar builds up.
Heap on the praise.
See, that wasn’t so bad right? Now’s the time for lots of praise and treats so they’ll remember the good stuff more than the part where you were removing plaque. And if you give them a dental supplement or dental chews, they’ll be getting their teeth even cleaner.
Remember, done is better than perfect.
When you’re dealing with a dental patient who’s not at all patient, sometimes you just do what you can. A full and thorough daily brushing would be amazing, but a quick once-over three times a week is still much, much better than not brushing at all.