Metro Weekly

6 Dental Tips for your Pets

Too often dogs and cats go without proper dental attention

Canine dental care Photo by Ermolaev Alexander

Photo: Ermolaev Alexander

Dogs like to lick their butts. Without any consideration to proper hygiene and etiquette, they happily indulge in this natural animal instinct.

But such behavior could be contributing to, or even causing, your dog’s halitosis — and not just for the most obvious reason. (A tongue is never a suitable alternative to a sanitary wipe.) In fact, a dog’s bad breath is often a sign he has an infection somewhere in the body — if not the mouth, which is often the culprit, then somewhere, such as the anal gland, a dog licks regularly.

That’s why you should never turn your nose to a dog’s bad breath, accepting it as just the natural odor of things or part of getting old.

“Doggie breath usually means something’s wrong,” advises Ray Phillip, director of dentistry at D.C.’s Friendship Hospital for Animals. “And that something wrong may be subtle. It may just be an infection under the gums that needs to be cleaned out.” No matter what’s causing the halitosis, Phillip instructs dog owners to be vigilant. ” If a dog’s breath has changed, and the owners notice that it’s getting real bad, that’s usually an indication that something’s wrong.” In such a case, seek professional attention.

But too often, dogs — and cats — go without proper dental attention. As with humans, a pet’s oral health can have greater implications. “It is a fact that oral gum disease can affect the whole body,” says Phillip. For example, the bacteria from inflamed gums can get absorbed into the bloodstream and infect other organs, from the kidney to the heart.

Over the past decade, Phillip has helped improve and expand the dentistry department at Friendship Hospital in upper Northwest. Next week, the hospital will kick off February as National Pet Dental Health Month with a “Yappy” Hour featuring a discussion on pet dental health, complimentary teeth and gum checks of your pet and even yappy toothy pet treats — plus light fare and drinks for humans. Perhaps the centerpiece of the event, to be held in the brand-new second floor conference area, will be demonstrations on proper pet dental care — specifically on proper brushing of your pet’s teeth.

“Unfortunately — I say unfortunately because no one wants to do this, but brushing is the only way to really care for teeth properly,” says Phillip. “And should be done daily.” The Tooth Team aims to show that if done the right way — sliding a brush under the upper lip, for example, as opposed to trying to pry the mouth wide open — brushing isn’t difficult and doesn’t have to be the worst part of anyone’s day. “Most people are surprised that you don’t really have to force it in there.”

In fact, Phillip insists some pets even grow to look forward to getting their teeth brushed when the process includes the use of so-called pet toothpaste — which is simply a meat-flavored paste, not the pet-unfriendly solution we use.

6 Tips for Better Pet Oral Health:

  1. Annual Checkup
    Have your veterinarian do a basic examination of your pet’s teeth and mouth at least once a year as part of an overall routine physical checkup.
  2. Home Brushing
    Ideally you could start daily brushing as part of the basic training of your puppy or kitten — the earlier you start, the easier it’ll become. There are different types of brushes, so you might have to look around for one that’ll work best.
  3. Dental-Specific Diet
    The next best thing — or perfect complement — to daily home brushing is to give your pet soft kibble developed to basically clean the teeth during chewing. Friendship Hospital recommends Hills t/d, but your veterinarian may prefer a different brand, and could also better advise on whether to give it as a treat or as the regular diet.
  4. VOHC-Approved Dental Treats
    The independent Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) was formed nearly two decades ago to help guide consumers to those products that live up to boasts about controlling plague or tartar, based on regular analyses by a national panel of veterinarians. Look for the VOHC seal on approved products, or visit vohc.org for an updated list. Greenies Dental Chews by Nutro Products, Inc., is one VOHC-approved line of treats also singled out by Phillip (who has no affiliation with VOHC) as particularly good for tartar control in cats.
  5. Avoid Hard Bones, Gritty Balls
    All animal bones, especially cooked, carry risks of either splintering or improper ingestion and should not be given. Rawhide bones are only okay in short stretches, so as to lessen wear and tear of enamel. Phillip offers an additional rule of thumb: “You should be able to make an indention into the product with your fingernail. If you cannot then it’s too hard for the dog to chew on.” Regular tennis balls are also a no-no, due to the gritty covering that also wears down enamel. Look for pet-friendly tennis balls without the rough covering instead.
  6. Annual Dental Cleanings
    Scheduling a professional cleaning every year is recommended starting at three years of age for larger dogs and cats and starting at one year for smaller dogs. The use of anesthesia is the only way to do a proper, safe cleaning and get a full evaluation, including the taking of x-rays. Phillip and others in the veterinary field are troubled by the rise in what is called anesthesia-free dentistry. “The teeth can look very pretty and very white, but you can’t see…or clean…under the gum line without anesthesia.” Plus there’s the obvious risk of injury when an awake dog or cat makes a sudden move while a technician holds a sharp object in or near his mouth. Certainly anesthesia can also carry risks, particularly for senior dogs and cats with heart or blood problems. “We take each case and analyze everything to make sure it’s as safe as possible,” Phillip says.
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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.