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Pet Dental Health: Where to Start?

Posted by Joe Morton on

Thinking about a pet's dental health can feel overwhelming, but maintaining good dental health is incredibly important for the overall health of our furry friends! Devoting a small amount of time each day, or week, or month, to keeping our pet's teeth clean can go a long way in helping to prevent plaque and tartar build-up, which will then help to prevent tooth and gum disease.

Maintaining your pet's dental health has never been easier thanks to the variety of dental health products that are readily available to help with the task. With a little information and motivation, beneficial behaviors can easily become part of the daily routine.

Nobody can clean a pet's teeth like your vet can, so be sure to check in with him or her for regular teeth cleanings. Your vet should be your first resource for dental health issues and should be consulted prior to introducing teeth cleaning products.

What is tartar?

Upside Down Dog Smiling

To oversimplify a very complicated process, tartar is the yellowy residue on teeth formed when plaque, which naturally occurs after eating, is left untreated on teeth and becomes hardened and calcified. This dense deposit bonds very strongly to teeth, pushing on the gums and providing an excellent surface for bacterial growth.

Left untreated, tartar can lead to periodontal diseases including gingivitis and periodontitis. Painful and inflamed gums, tooth decay, infection, and many other issues can arise from poor dental health. Similar to findings with humans, there have even been studies showing links between poor dental health and heart, liver, and kidney issues in dogs and cats!

What can be done to prevent gum disease?

First and foremost, the most important way to keep your pet’s whole body healthy, including their teeth and gums, is to feed a diet of high quality and natural food. Above all else, a well-balanced natural diet will increase your dog or cat’s health in numerous ways, from their skin and coat, to digestion, and yes, even dental health.

But high-quality food is not the complete answer, and plaque will still build up on your pet’s teeth. This is where dental health products can help.

Cat SmilingJust like with our own tooth and gum health, we don’t stick to one method to keep our mouth clean and healthy. Frequent brushing, flossing, mouthwash and dentist visits are required to keep up with our gums. This is the same for cats and dogs. There are many different products that will help keep your pet’s mouth healthy, and the best results will come from combining them.

A common misconception is that eating a dry kibble will scrape away plaque and tartar, keeping your pet’s teeth clean. While this might be true to a very small extent, it is not sufficient for healthy teeth and gums! Relying on kibble to clean teeth is like us eating pretzels instead of brushing and flossing!

Types of dental health products:

Classic Toothbrushes

By manually scraping and loosening plaque, brushing is the most effective and efficient method for fighting tartar build up.

As with humans, the best and most trusted way to keep your pet’s teeth healthy is with frequent brushing. While brushing every day is the best solution, every three days, every week, or every month is better than no brushing at all! Toothbrushes come in two varieties, a classic toothbrush or a little brush that fits on the end of a finger.

While it might be difficult to do at first, most dogs and cats will come around and eventually warm up to the process. By slowly and gradually brushing more frequently and thoroughly, while offering positive rewards and treats, your pet will be conditioned to enjoy it in no time.

Toothpastes come in a variety of styles and flavors to appeal to most cats and dogs. Only use toothpaste that is intended for pets, as human toothpaste contains abrasives, detergents, and other chemicals that are harmful if swallowed.

For step-by-step information on brushing your dog or cat's teeth, click here. We also have some specific more in-depth articles for cat dental health, dog dental health, and small animal dental health!

Gel and rinses

By working into all corners of the mouth, gels and rinses can clean hard to reach spots more easily, and with less stress than a toothbrush.

Gels and rinses come in a variety of flavors and styles to match your pet’s liking, and can be a lot less effort on your part. They can easily be squirted or foamed into your pet’s mouth, or added to their water to be ingested through drinking. They will then work their way through the teeth and gums and gradually break down plaque over time. While not as powerful as manually brushing away the plaque, they are an excellent addition to regular brushing and dental scraping. They can also help freshen your dog or cat’s breath!

Chews and toys

The right treat can get between teeth to help scrape and break down plaque without your pet even knowing it.

While your average kibble won’t help reduce tartar build-up very well, the right chew or toy (such as rope toys) can be a great addition to your pet’s dental regiment. Certain toys including Nylabone, rope or leather toys will help to scrape away plaque and break down tartar as your dog chews. Treats like antlers, bully sticks, rawhide, and especially raw bones can help as well.

Look for treats or toys with grooves that will get in between teeth to scrape away plaque. Also, harder toys that can't easily be chewed will be more effective at breaking down plaque, and will allow your pet to spend more time working on them, while brushing their own teeth. This is the most low-stress option for dental health, as your dog will get more enjoyment out of it than brushing or gels.

Dog Chewing On ToyChew toys and treats are no substitute for a good brushing, but in addition to those other methods, they are very effective. And remember, always supervise your pet when offering chew toys. If your dog is an obsessive chewer or has fragile or damaged teeth, they could further damage their teeth by attempting to chew hard, dense treats and toys.

Remember, when it comes to tooth and gum health, it's better to do just a little bit at a time very often than it is to do a lot for just a short while. Dental health is a long-term issue that requires a long-term solution. Don't fret if it seems overwhelming -- small changes to your pet's diet, treats, and daily regiment can make a big difference in their overall health and well being later in life! And who can resist a pup with a mouthful of pearly whites?

The information and product recommendations provided in this post are in no way meant to be a substitute or replacement for personal recommendations from your pet's qualified veterinarian. Before attempting any dental treatments at home or introducing new products to your pet, it is always important that you first check with your veterinarian.

For more information on periodontal disease in pets, check out the American Veterinary Dental College.