Maintaining good dental health in our pets takes diligence. Dental problems in pets are very common, and despite the notion that it's just a matter of bad 'doggy breath' or appearance, dental problems are so much more than that. The bacteria that collects in our pets' mouths can lead to serious health issues if it's not properly taken care of.
Why worry so much about their teeth? Poor dental health can lead to:
So what can we do as pet owners to help keep our pets' mouths as healthy as possible?
Ask your vet to do an oral exam on your pet. He or she can advise you whether your pet's dental health is serious enough to warrant a cleaning (or other dental work). A dental cleaning is almost always done under anesthesia. Many pet owners are understandably worried about the anesthesia, but your vet can run bloodwork prior to the dental to figure out whether or not your pet is healthy enough to do the work. Since poor dental health can lead to many other serious health issues, keeping your pet's teeth clean is important.
That said, try to minimize how often your pet needs to be sedated for dental work. Adopting a regular dental care routine (see below) will help. As a bonus, you'll save money from the cost of dental cleanings!
Some pets absolutely hate to have their teeth brushed, but with time and patience, most can be taught to tolerate it. There are soft-bristled toothbrushes made specifically for pets, or you can instead choose a soft finger-brush. You can even use a piece of gauze to 'wipe' at the teeth (taking care to ensure your pet doesn't swallow it!). Do not use human toothpaste for pets. Human toothpaste is meant to be rinsed away, not swallowed. There is specially formulated toothpaste for pets in several flavours. Most pets appear to tolerate it well, and some even enjoy it.
The good thing about regular brushing is that you can examine your pet's mouth at the same time. Keep an eye out for any unusual-looking spots, lumps, smell, or discharge.
Although ideally we'd brush our pet's teeth once or twice daily, most people don't have the time or inclination to do it so often. A more realistic goal is to brush a minimum of twice per week.
Some toys are specifically designed to help massage a dog's gums and help to scrub the teeth while they chew. Many have little nubs or ridges for this purpose. For example, Kong dental toys have small grooves in them which can even be filled with dog toothpaste.
Now there are dental sprays, gels, and rinses that may help to keep your pet's mouths clean. They can't perform miracles; but once your pet has had their teeth cleaned, these can help to keep them that way. Many types of sprays are available and one may work better than another for your pet. Always discuss their use with your vet first.
There are 'dental health' pet foods (kibble) and treats that are supposed to gently scrub the teeth while they're being eaten. However, not all pets find them palatable - and they are not a substitute for regular care. They're popular because they're easy - just offer food or a treat, something we'd do anyways. However, dental food and treats don't prevent tartar from building up; they claim to be able to help 'clean' the teeth, but the reality is that they are no substitute for brushing... plus the extra calories can lead to a tubby pet.
Many pet owners (and some veterinarians) who feed their dogs a raw diet that includes raw, meaty bones, claim that the natural enzymes present in the food help protect the teeth and gums and keep them clean. But a raw food diet isn't appropriate for every dog, nor are raw bones suitable for every dog, even as a treat (aggressive chewers, for example, may fracture their teeth). If you are interested in possibly changing your dog to a raw diet, consult with a veterinarian who is knowledgeable and open-minded about both the raw food diet as well as the standard kibble / canned food fare that most pet owners feed.
With any type of food or treats, pet owners should be aware that very hard food can cause some pets to fracture their teeth.
Wishing your pet good dental health!