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Take care of your pet’s teeth during Pet Dental Health Month

Rachel Szumel
Special to the Tribune

Let’s face it, there’s a month for everything. But this one is near and dear to my heart because as a general practice veterinarian, the vast majority of my patients have some level of periodontal disease. That is, 80% of dogs and 70% of cats by age 3. That’s a lot of teeth (and gums) that need attention.

And here’s the thing: the early stages of periodontal disease are reversible with proper treatment. Saving teeth is what Pet Dental Health Month is all about.

What is dental disease?

Did you know that “dental disease” isn’t just about the teeth? Far from it. In fact, the medical term, periodontal disease, is a much better descriptor, because most of the problem is actually with the soft tissue and bone that surround (“peri-”) the teeth (“dontal”).

First, the bacteria in the mouth form a soft substance called plaque. This sticks to the teeth and will eventually harden into calculus, or tartar. The bacteria thriving within the plaque and tartar causes an inflammatory response in the gums in an attempt to kill the bacteria off, but that same process damages the oral tissues as well. This leads to bad breath, infection, chronic pain, and bone loss around the teeth. Left unchecked, the damage will progress until the teeth loosen and fall out.

But wait – there’s more. That the inflammation and infection can and will impact the rest of the body as well. Inflamed gums can let bacteria into the bloodstream. These bacteria then travel to the rest of the body, setting up shop in the organs and causing chronic inflammation and infections there. Kidney, heart, and liver disease have all been associated with periodontal disease.

These internal changes will most likely happen without you noticing. However, your veterinarian may be able to pick up early signs with diagnostic tests on the blood and urine.

So what do we do about all this horrifying information?

Your first stop should be a thorough wellness exam with your veterinarian. This will allow your vet to assess the mouth as well as your pet’s overall health and make the best recommendation for moving forward. If your pet doesn’t have evidence of periodontal disease yet, start brushing the teeth at home to help keep it that way. Done right, brushing is not only easy and fun for both you and your pet (yes, cats included), but it is the single best thing you can do to keep the mouth healthy and comfortable, and it’s cheap. Brushing daily is best, but the minimum to make a difference is three times a week.

If your pet already has periodontal disease, you will need to discuss the next steps with your vet. For very early disease, this may just mean starting to brush daily to clear up the inflammation. If it’s a bit more advanced and there is already calculus, your vet may recommend a cleaning and evaluation under anesthesia, followed by regular brushing at home. If it’s very advanced, be prepared for extractions or more advanced periodontal treatments.

If your vet does find periodontal disease, ask if they think the mouth is painful. If the answer is yes, wait to start brushing until those areas of severe disease have been treated. The last thing you want is for your pet to associate brushing with pain.

How to get started brushing

All you need is a bag of treats and a soft-bristled brush. A pet brush is fine, but I also like human brushes designed for children or infants.

Toothpaste (pet-specific only) is optional and can sometimes make brushing more difficult because your pet wants to lick it off the brush. Start out slowly – a couple strokes on one tooth, then stop and give a treat. Don’t forget the molars in the way back, too.

Once your dog is loving it, you can brush more teeth in between treats. Don’t worry too much about your pet eating after brushing – you are getting those bacteria out from under the gum line, and that’s what counts.

If you’d like more detailed guidance, or if your pet is reluctant to let you brush, check out https://lorinanan.com/canine-courses/pet-dental-care/. This course takes you through the step-by-step training your pet needs to not only allow you to brush but to love it. Even pets who are worried about having their mouths handled can learn to enjoy it if you follow the training plan carefully. The course also discusses the ins and outs of a complete home dental care program including products or services you may hear about.

Happy brushing!

Rachel Szumel is a general practice veterinarian at Alpine Animal Hospital in South Lake Tahoe.


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