February is pet dental month. The importance of dental care and oral health to pets cannot be over emphasized. Often dental care for pets is overlooked because issues with the teeth are not always easy to notice. Many people also think that as long as their pet is still eating their teeth are fine but sadly this is often not the case. Maintaining your pet’s oral health is not just about dealing with dental issues, preventative care of the teeth is also very important.

Home dental care for both dogs and cats can help prevent or at least delay a lot of oral disease. Brushing the teeth of your pet has the most long term benefit. Depending on their personality this can take some time to get used to. If possible, once daily brushing is best but as often as you can remember will still have a benefit. There are special small soft bristled tooth brushes and even fingertip brushes made for pets that can help make brushing easier. Be sure to only use pet formulated toothpaste as it is safe to swallow and has an enzymatic component that is supposed to help break down tartar on contact. Toys that encourage chewing can also help clean the teeth but it is important to be selective, you want something that the pet will not be able to break or ingest pieces from. At the same time very hard plastic bones or real bones can be an issue as they can break the teeth. Dental diets are another good way to help keep your pet’s teeth clean. These kibbles are made to clean the teeth mechanically as the animal chews. It is optimal to feed this as a daily diet but if that is not possible giving the dental diet as a treat could be helpful. Unfortunately, once a dog or cat has marked dental disease no amount of homecare is going to resolve this completely. It will help prevent some of the progression of the disease but the pet will also need professional dental work to address any major problems. This is why it is important to have your pet’s teeth assessed regularly by a veterinarian. You may also consider dental cleanings and if needed, more advanced dental work.

In terms of oral health and the amount of professional dental care required, individual animals really vary. Some pets seem to be naturally less prone to tartar buildup and in some cases their behavior (eating hard kibble as main diet, liking to chew) can have oral health benefits. In dogs, different breeds can have a natural predisposition to dental disease. Small breeds in general are more prone to dental issues. A pet that has crooked or misaligned teeth is also more likely to have oral health problems due to disruption of the mouth’s natural cleansing system. Overall, as pets age their dental health worsens. Even if an animal has teeth which appear fairly clean they can suffer from broken teeth or infected tooth roots. Also, it is often difficult to see the teeth at the back of the mouth so issues here are often missed by pet owners. Dental disease can be the cause of significant pain to an animal, whether they show signs of it or not. A vet can assess your pet’s mouth more thoroughly to look for these problems, although sometimes they too may need to do further examination under anesthetic to get a better idea of what’s going on. Often when this is done a dental cleaning and any required dental procedures can be done at the same time. Dental cleanings remove tartar and plaque from the teeth. They also remove it from above the gum line where it cannot be seen but can cause disease to the roots of the teeth. It is much easier to maintain your pet’s oral health with regular home care after a cleaning, as you are starting with a healthy clean mouth. Often teeth that have infected roots or are broken need to be removed but it is always preferable to do a dental cleaning before this point to prevent extractions from being needed.

Even though it may not be obvious, dental health is as important to our pets as it is to us. It is imperative to their quality of life to be free from oral pain and to be able to eat/drink without difficulty or suffering. Often our pets are very good at dealing with soreness and they will cope for a long time with no change in behavior. This is why having at least yearly examinations of the mouth is important. Typically it is included as part of the animal’s physical but if there are specific concerns don’t hesitate to ask your vet. Starting at a young age, good dental care both at home and at the doctor’s office is an important part of a pet’s overall healthcare plan.