Dental care ought to play an integral role in any whole-body health program—whether for people or their pets. Yet veterinary dental experts tell us that fully 85% of all pets over six years of age have periodontal disease. That's sad. Animals have a tough time enjoying life with less-than-healthy teeth. And tooth problems often lead to serious infections that are extremely difficult to treat, sometimes even becoming life threatening.
Good pet dental care may be a bit of a challenge, but keeping a dog or cat's mouth and teeth healthy is vital to an animal's well-being.
In some breeds, tooth problems begin at birth. A mini-size pooch that can curl up comfortably on your lap is mighty cute, but if you look at that lapdog's mouth you'll probably find a disaster. When mankind manipulated genetics to develop tiny dog breeds, it managed to decrease the animals' body size but failed to achieve a corresponding decrease in the size and number of teeth. Growing teeth have to go somewhere, and when crammed into a half-size mouth they often rotate sideways or poke in or stick out. A mouthful of ragged and jagged teeth isn't much good for chewing and, worse, is full of gaps that serve as hideaways for food particles that cause gum, bone, and tooth disease.
Larger breeds with scrunched-in faces also commonly inherit congenital dental problems. Pooch's pug nose may make it more appealing in the pet shop window, but its flattened face is jam-packed with teeth meant to fit into a substantially longer snout.
If you're choosing a pup and would rather have one that isn't an instant dental catastrophe, pick a dog that looks caninelike. The more a dog's snout looks like that of a wolf, fox, or coyote, the less our genetic tampering has altered its mouth's structure. If you can hold the dog in the palm of your hand, or if its face looks like it ran full steam into a brick wall, you can pretty much assume the dog is a dental bill waiting to happen.
The time to begin taking care of a pup or kitten's teeth is shortly after it arrives in your household. Brushing is as essential to preventing dental disease in pets as it is in humans. So the sooner the animal gets accustomed to having a toothbrush in its mouth, the better. Here's how to go about it.
1. Make it a game. Pick a time of the day when it'll always be easy for you to take a few minutes out to play with your puppy or kitten. Then, while you're playing, make it a point to rub the animal's teeth and gums with your fingers. Make sure that your pet associates these initial "brushings" with fun and games. By doing this regularly, at the same time and in the same place every day or so, the pet will gradually learn when it's time to play (and have its teeth rubbed).
2. When the young pet becomes accustomed to the mouth play, add another element: Dampen a cloth, wrap it around your finger, and use it to rub its teeth. For kittens, try using a cloth dampened in the juice from a can of tuna or sardines. A pup might like a garlic-dampened cloth better.
3. Graduate to a toothbrush when the pet seems ready to accept one. Use a soft baby toothbrush or one made especially for pets. There are also finger cots available that have an abrasive surface especially made for rubbing teeth. Exactly what kind of "tooth brusher" you use is not nearly as important as it is that you use it consistently. For that matter, you can continue to use a piece of cloth wrapped over your finger.
In any case, don't use human-variety toothpaste. Our pastes are intended to be spit out and will make a pet sick. Instead, use one of the brands made especially for pets (pastes and brushes are sold in pet stores and through veterinarians) or simply use a little dampened baking soda. Usually, brushing twice a week is adequate. Don't be disheartened if your pet doesn't take to the brushings right away. Be patient. If brushing time becomes an ordeal, just fall back to the finger play routine for another week or so before trying the brush again. Sooner or later your pet will become accustomed to the process and perhaps even enjoy it. I've had people tell me that their dog will troop into the living room with an expectant look and a toothbrush in mouth if it hasn't received a brushing in a while.
In addition to conscientious early acclimatization to the toothbrush, there's another reason to begin thinking about pet dental care early on in your pet's life. The animal should start to lose its baby (or deciduous) teeth when it's a few months old, and all its adult teeth should be in place at about six months of age. But not every pet has a mouth that behaves according to plan; sometimes the baby teeth decide to stay right where they are. The result, two rows of teeth along one gum line, causes crowding and displacement of the adult teeth, pockets in the gums where food can accumulate, and, ultimately, disease and decay.
I've had to remove many a baby tooth that's failed to make way for the adult tooth. Sometimes this requires surgery, but more often it's a simple, in-office procedure. In any event, it's better for you and your pet to have the work done at four to six months of age than to wait until disease has set in.
It's also important to get your new pets off on the right foot food-wise. Hard, crunchy food helps clean away the plaque deposits that cause tartar buildup and periodontal disease. Be kind to your pet's chompers by making sure that at least a portion of its daily menu includes something crunchy and firm.
There is recent evidence that—in people, at least—some foods are better for the teeth than others. Cheese, citrus fruits, and peanuts, for example, apparently help the teeth ward off cavities. Simple starches and sticky foods such as raisins, however, may increase the potential for tooth disease.
The worst edible for tooth health is sugar. Sugar-fed dogs and cats develop cavities that look—and eventually cause pain—just like the ones in people's mouths.
Finally, give your pet the same good overall health care you give yourself. General good health has a direct bearing on good dental health, and, sure enough, vice-versa.
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