Most people know that bad breath in dogs is very common. What they may not know is that it’s often a sign of dental disease. The fact is, 85% of all dogs have periodontal disease by the age of just two years!
Periodontal disease starts with plaque accumulating on the teeth. If the plaque is not removed, it hardens into tartar. Accumulations of tartar lead to swollen and sensitive gums and gingivitis. By this time, the dog has advanced dental disease. This isn’t just a cosmetic issue – it can have negative effects on many internal organs. Scientific evidence has shown that bad teeth can cause heart, lung, and even kidney disease. Poor dental care can actually shorten a dog’s life.
The speed with which dental disease progresses depends on the breed of dog and his diet. Smaller breeds seem to have more dental problems earlier in life than larger breeds. When I was in veterinary school many years ago, we were taught that dogs and cats should be fed dry food to help remove tartar from their teeth. In general, this is not true. The Veterinary Dental Society states that dogs eating dry food do not have better dental health than those fed exclusively canned food.
Just as with humans, daily home dental care for dogs can prevent the development of periodontal disease, control plaque development and maintain fresh breath.
Where do you start?
Look into your dog’s mouth and determine if he already has periodontal disease. Look for swollen red gums, pus along the gum line, cracked teeth or a foul odor. If you find any of these things, he needs a trip to the veterinarian to determine if a professional dental cleaning is needed, before you start home dental care. Beginning dental care at home if your dog already has a problem can worsen the condition and be painful to the dog. This could make him reluctant to allow you to brush his teeth in future. If everything is fine with your dog’s teeth, then you can start a daily brushing routine.
Brushing your dog’s teeth every day is important because plaque can form on a clean tooth surface within hours, and can mineralize to tartar in a few days. Brushing removes plaque before it has a chance to become tartar. You can use daily tooth brushing sessions as an opportunity to spend more time with your dog.
5 steps to successful brushing
1. Start slowly. Ideally, you should start brushing a dog’s teeth when he is a puppy, between eight and 12 weeks of age. If you start early, he’ll be used to it by the time his permanent teeth come in. You can also start with an older dog, but it will take longer for him to accept the brushing.
2. It is important that you try to make it a positive experience. Do not over-restrain your dog. Make the sessions short and rewarding. It is important that your dog learns to see the brushing as a pleasant experience. If your dog is small, hold him/her in your lap and praise and reassure him throughout the procedure.
3. Get your dog used to having his mouth touched. Lift the lips, put your fingers in the mouth and rub the teeth with your fingers. Do this daily, in short sessions, at the same time every day so your dog comes to expect this extra attention. Once he likes the idea of your fingers in his mouth and playing with his teeth, you can introduce some toothpaste.
4. Use toothpaste made for dogs. Human toothpaste foams up and can give your dog an upset stomach. Initially, put the toothpaste on your finger and rub it on the dog’s teeth. Gently rub the teeth with a circular motion. Start with the front teeth and work towards the back. Keep this session short and repeat on a daily basis until your dog is used to his “tooth rubs” and accepts them without complaint.
5. Next, introduce a soft bristled tooth brush designed for animals, or graduate to a finger brush. Be careful not to brush too hard. It is normal for dogs to want to chew on the tooth brush. Brush in circles and from side to side. It’s the action of bristles on the teeth that removes the plaque. Focus on the gum line, as this is where plaque tends to accumulate.
Dental homecare for your dog means some extra work, but the more you can do, the healthier he will be – and the fewer professional cleanings he will need.
What else can you do?
In addition to brushing, there are a couple of other things you can do to improve your dog’s oral health.
• Dogs fed raw diets actually have the best teeth. Dogs that have one to two raw bones weekly have better teeth than those who only eat commercial kibble. Large beef bones can be used with larger dogs but you do run the risk of breaking teeth. These bones can be given frozen to the dog and taken away after about an hour. I recommend feeding them outside as they do make a mess.
• Oral rinses and mouth sprays are available for dogs. These can be used in addition to brushing. Be careful when purchasing these products, however, as some contain xylitol or alcohol, which are toxic to your dog. There are some natural herbal remedies that can be used for periodontal disease as well. They help with gum infections and are made to be used as part of a complete oral hygiene program.