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Pet dental care: Dental hygiene helps protect pets’ overall health – just like it does for people

Joe Hernandez, a junior stylist at Petco, uses a finger brush to clean Macy’s teeth. Macy is a Shih Tzu.  

Eight-year-old Ruth gets her teeth brushed once a week, at the same time she has her nails trimmed.

It was her “stinky breath” that prompted Wanda Morstad, of Fordville, N.D., to start brushing her Australian kelpie’s teeth when the dog was about a year old, she said. That, and knowing what could happen if she didn’t.

In her work as a veterinarian technician for nearly 20 years with Golden Valley Veterinarian Service in Park River, N.D., Morstad said “seeing “a lot of bad teeth and pulling them” raised her awareness.

Taking care of your dog’s teeth goes a long way toward maintaining his health — not to mention keeping his breath from knocking you out.

Animals, like people, face serious health threats if they don’t receive proper dental care, veterinarians say.

To guard against such threats, pet owners are providing their pets with dental care to keep them healthy.

Health risks

The build-up of tartar and plaque can lead to periodontal disease and infections that could attack the heart, kidneys, liver and brain, said Dr. Jeanette Bjornstad, veterinarian with Golden Valley Veterinary Service.

“Any infections that are targeting major organs, that would be a concern,” she said.

Bacteria, a major component of tartar, can get into the bloodstream or respiratory system and lead to infection.

Periodontal disease, in general, is a threat, Bjornstad said. It can lead to endocarditis and other systemic problems. Endocarditis is inflammation of the inner layer of the heart.

It can affect the kidneys, which may lead to renal failure, or sepsis, a potentially fatal whole-body inflammation caused by severe infection, could result.

Checking the mouth for dental disease, oral lesions, cancer and inflammation is part of a regular wellness examination, Bjornstad said. Evidence of abscesses, caused by dental problems, can be seen in the face.

Start early

Bjornstad and other vets recommend that pet-owners start brushing their dogs’ teeth early.

“Even though younger dogs will lose all their first teeth by 6 months of age, it’s not a bad idea — if you really want to do this — to start brushing their teeth, to get them used to the whole idea of it,” she said. The goal “is getting the debris off (of) the teeth.”

The pet-care accessories market offers special toothbrushes, pastes and gels intended to make the job easier for owners and more palatable for pets.

“You can get paste with all kinds of flavorings (such as) meat, chicken, tuna” that appeal to pets, she said.

With a “finger-brush,” a two-inch thimble-like device, owners can clean their dog’s teeth by rubbing along the gum-line, Bjornstad said.

It is especially useful “if the dog is sensitive to objects or strange things coming toward its face, or if they’re skittish” about getting their teeth brushed, said Lynn Berry, groomer with Petco in Grand Forks. Their owner’s hands “are hands that they know.”

“You just massage the gums. It’s easier to maneuver.”

Brushing your dog’s teeth “is a great thing to do at home,” Berry said. “You can do it while sitting on the couch, watching TV.”

It’s best to start brushing when the pet is young, she said. “But it’s never too late to start.”

Bjornstad also recommends dental or oral rinses that are especially good for dogs that have tartar build-up.

“In some dogs, the tartar gets built up so much, you have to come in (to a vet) and have their teeth scraped and polished,” she said.

Dry foods

Bjornstad also suggests giving your pet dry dog food because moist foods permit tartar to build up more quickly, she said. “Chew toys will take particles off the teeth… and naturally break off tartar build-up.”

Such toys, “especially those with any kind of enzymatic action, could lessen tartar,” she said. Sprays that decrease the odor of a dog’s breath are also available.

“In the dental market, in general, there are a whole lot of products out there.”

Adult dogs have 42 teeth which replace their 28 baby teeth. Cats have 26 baby teeth and 30 adult teeth.

Sometimes, the dog’s baby teeth will fail to drop, as nature intends, resulting in overcrowding, a condition that encourages food particles to stick to the teeth which can promote gum disease.

In dogs that exhibit sensitivity, “there’s no limit on what can be done,” Bjornstad said. For example, “root canals are commonly done to save teeth.”

Pets that are suffering dental pain “are not really themselves,” she said. “They’re not playing as much, they’re lethargic.” They may rub their faces.

“It’s really a painful situation.”

They may show signs of sensitivity even to water, she said, and to hot and cold. They may go to their dishes and act as though they want to eat, but hesitate.

“But the owner doesn’t pick up on it; it can be pretty subtle.”

When full-mouth extraction is the only answer, she said, “after (the teeth) are removed, they’re like new dogs. It’s amazing how they will act.”

Not so unusual

At one time, the idea of brushing pets’ teeth may have seemed a bit over the top, but no more.

Today, people are more exposed to and interested in various preventive measures, in general, to improve or preserve their pets’ health, Bjornstad said.

“These pets are part of the family, every detail is kind of checked out on them.”

The notion of brushing Ruth’s teeth is purely practical, said Morstad. “It can’t hurt to brush them; we brush our teeth.”

“I just use my Sensodyne (toothpaste) and a regular toothbrush. I figure, it’s good enough for people, it’s OK for her.”

“She’s still ticking after eight years.”