Dental Home Care
By Dr. Katie Habgood
When it comes to dental disease, dogs and cats are at risk just like humans are, and often times, they are at an even higher risk. Most humans brush and floss their teeth on a daily basis as well as visit their dentists on an annual to semiannual basis. Despite this awareness of human dentistry, many pet owners do not realize their pets are prone to the same problems. Just like in humans, evidence continues to mount that chronic dental disease, resulting in infection and inflammation, can have serious negative impacts on systemic health. In order for dental care to be successful in our pets, both at home dental care and professional cleanings/COHATs must be incorporated.
Dental home care is preventative maintenance. The most important thing to remember is that dental home care works best when starting with a disease-free mouth. Dental home care cannot correct a problem once it has developed. If a pet’s mouth is already diseased, dental home care such as brushing the teeth can be painful and can lead to your pet becoming sensitive to having his mouth/head handled.
The most important aspect of dental home care is brushing. Brushing aids in the removal of plaque on the part of the tooth that is visible above the gumline. Brushing will not address subgingival (below the gumline) disease and will not remove calcified plaque (aka tartar). Brushing is most effective when performed at least 4 times/week, ideally daily. The reason for this is because plaque will form on a tooth within hours of brushing the tooth and will start to form tartar within a few days. Even after we brush our own teeth the night before, our teeth often feel “fuzzy” when we wake up in the morning. This “fuzzy” feel is biofilm on the tooth which is composed of bacteria that is specifically known as plaque.
It is best to incorporate brushing when your pet is young (8-12 weeks is the best time to start), but brushing can be started at any age. It is important to start slow to let your pet get used to brushing. By starting slow and by incorporating lots of positive reinforcement, most pets will actually enjoy having their teeth brushed. Pick a finger toothbrush or a small soft-bristled brush (an actual pet toothbrush is best because it is designed for the unique shape of dog’s and cat’s teeth but a child’s toothbrush can also be used). Just make sure your pet doesn’t try to swallow the finger toothbrush! Next, get a toothpaste from your veterinarian. Do not use human toothpaste because they contain enough fluoride to be toxic if swallowed daily and some brands contain Xylitol which is an artificial sweetener that is harmless to humans but quite toxic to dogs.
If you would like information on how to brush your pet’s teeth, please contact your veterinarian or you can access many different videos on tooth brushing on YouTube.
Dental Chews and Wipes
Unfortunately, there are a number of dental products over the counter that claim to be effective for one thing or another yet have no credible evidence to back that claim. So how does a pet owner know which dental product to choose? We highly recommend looking for dental products that have been awarded the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) Seal of Acceptance and specifically products that have the seal for helping to control plaque.
The VOHC is an independent body of veterinary dentists who evaluate dental products made for pets to determine whether they are effective for what they claim to be. It is up to the company who makes the product, though, to seek the approval of the VOHC. The approval is based on testing and clinical trials of the product. The VOHC does not perform any research itself therefore the manufacturer must perform scientific trials based on the VOHC standard protocols. The VOHC will review the data once the company submits their report to them. If the VOHC is satisfied that the protocols were followed and that the results indicate a significant beneficial effect, the product is granted the Seal of Acceptance. An example of this is Tartar Shield Soft Rawhide Chews which we carry at our clinic. Visit vohc.org to learn more about the VOHC and to see their list of accepted products. Just like with brushing, it is best to give your pet a dental chew daily.
Other important factors in choosing dental treats are taking into account how hard the product is and making sure your pet is not going to choke on the product. Unfortunately, there are many products that you can find in pet stores that are way too hard to be chewed. If you can take the product and can either bend it or take your fingernail and scratch pieces of it off, it is soft enough for your pet to chew on. Products to avoid include cow and horse hoofs, bones, hard Nyla bones and antlers. We see too many pets with fractured teeth as the result of chewing on products that are too hard. Also keep in mind that dental chews must be the proper size for the pet to avoid a choking hazard.
Dental wipes can also be effective in removing plaque but just be sure to wipe the area of the tooth that meets the gumline. Some animals will not tolerate brushing but will tolerate the wipes. Wipes are considered the next best thing to brushing and work best when used daily.
Oral Gels, Water Additives and Sprays
Several companies make oral gels that are designed to be applied to the outer surface of the tooth with a swab on a routine basis. An example is OraVet Plaque Preventive Gel which is designed to be applied once weekly. OraVet is a wax-like substance that makes it more difficult for plaque to adhere to the tooth. Just like brushing, this product works best as a preventative in a clean, disease free mouth.
There are several companies who also make products that are designed to be added to your pet’s water to help reduce plaque formation and sometimes freshen the breath. Sprays can be used as well. Visit the vohc.org website to see which products have received their Seal of Acceptance.
Hard food is ideal over canned food because it can help remove plaque from teeth. It is a common misconception, though, that simply feeding a kibbled diet will prevent dental disease from developing, especially with cats who tend to inhale rather than chew most of what they eat. There are a few pet food companies who make special dental diets to help control plaque and/or tartar but just like with brushing, diets should not be used without addressing underlying disease first.
One of the diets we carry is Science Diet t/d. This product comes in a large kibble size designed to scrub the entire tooth surface when chewed and has been awarded the Seal of Acceptance by the VOHC for helping to control both plaque and tartar in dogs and cats. This diet is high in fiber which helps prevent the kibble from shattering when chewed, instead allowing the tooth to “sink into” the kibble allowing plaque to be scrubbed away. Purina also makes a diet called DH which has been awarded the Seal of Acceptance by the VOHC for helping to control tartar in dogs and plaque and tartar in cats. It is important to remember that these diets are helpful only in cleaning the molars and premolars and not the incisors or canine teeth.
By incorporating at dental home care into your pet’s daily routine, you can greatly improve your pet’s dental health which may mean fewer professional cleanings and decreased tooth loss. Please contact your veterinarian with any questions regarding at home dental care.