The most common problem I see in dogs and cats is dental disease. This is not that surprising, really, as very few of my patients brush their teeth. If you didn’t brush your teeth for eight years, what do you think they would look like?
Usually, what I see on a physical examination is plaque and calculus. (Yellow or brown gunk that are really bacterial cesspools adhered to the teeth.) Often, I also see gingivitis, a thin, red stripe on the gum line that indicates inflammation or irritation on the gums, and other signs of periodontal disease, including loose teeth and drooling. Dental disease can cause halitosis (bad breath), fractured teeth (ouch!), and it has the potential for spreading infection to key organs of the body. The recommended treatment is a dental cleaning, with possibly dental extractions if the disease is extensive. As this can be a costly procedure that must be done under general anesthesia, I encourage brushing your pet’s teeth for them as a preventative measure.
Brushing your pet’s teeth doesn’t usually help with tartar that is already present, but it will hopefully prevent it from getting worse. If your pet still has pearly whites, brushing should help keep them this way. A word of warning: not all pets, especially some cats are going to enjoy having their teeth brushed. Be careful not to get bitten!
So here’s how to brush your pet’s teeth: I recommend you take time once a day to work on a brushing routine with your pet(s).
Intimidated yet? Brushing your dog’s and cat’s teeth isn’t really that hard. With a little patience, it can even be a great way for you to spend time, and bond with your pet. Step one is to find a yummy toothpaste, flavored for pets. You shouldn’t use your toothpaste, because chances are that it contains fluoride, which is toxic if swallowed. Because it is very difficult to teach your pet to spit, you should buy doggy or kitty toothpastes. Besides, your cat or dog is probably not going to like wintergreen or mint, probably preferring something delicious like liver- or poultry-flavored toothpaste. Mmmm.
Once you have your toothpaste, you are going to squeeze a little on your finger and dangle it in front of your finger saying, “Cookie cookie cookie!” in a high pitched squeal so that your pet knows something VERY EXCITING is coming their way. If you know your pet’s flavor preferences well, you will likely be rewarded by a few sniffs, followed by lick and a gulp. “Yum,” your pet will think, “Toothpaste is delicious. This is fun.” Do this once a day for three days, and try to pick the same time (like right after breakfast or right before bed) so that your pet (and you) will get use to the routine.
Next, find a toothbrush. You can find a whole variety of shapes and sizes on the internet or in the pet store, but I find an old human toothbrush usually does the trick. Once you find a toothbrush, I recommend taking a sharpie pen and labeling it with your pet’s name: this will prevent the dismay your husband will feel when he realizes he has been sharing a toothbrush with Funyon the Pug’s poopy mouth.
Once labeled, take a pea-sized blob of toothpaste, apply to the toothbrush and hold it in front of your pets mouth. No brushing yet! Just let your pet lick the toothbrush clean. Do this for a few days.
Finally, we are ready to try brushing! So now your pet has been getting a yummy treat for about a week, and should already feel comfortable with the routine, the toothbrush and the paste. This time, when your pet starts to lick off the toothpaste, make small back-and-forth movements, brushing just the outside of the very front teeth. This may be comical, as you’re trying to brush while your pet is trying to lick. Only brush for a few seconds, and then let your pet finish his lick.
Do this for about three days, and then slowly start extending your brushing excursions to get teeth further back in the mouth. You do not need to brush the tops or the insides of the teeth. (And actually, that is a good way to get bitten.) See if you can get the toothbrush to the very-way-back teeth. Forget singing your ABC’s; brushing your pet’s teeth should take about 10 seconds tops. It is very important that your pet likes it, so that this is a positive experience not a battle.
Some pets just do not like having their teeth brushed. Although in my opinion brushing is the best way to prevent dental disease, it’s not worth doing if it creates stress in your relationship, or if there is any risk of you getting injured. If this is the case, you can talk to your veterinarian about prescription foods designed to help prevent dental disease, and various toys that might help cut down on plaque.
Soon your pet’s smile will be the envy of the neighborhood