The goal of daily dental care is to prevent periodontal disease by reducing plaque build-up. Dental plaque is bacterial film that sticks to teeth, and when allowed to accumulate it combines with saliva and mineralizes, forming tartar (dental calculus). Tartar that forms above the gum line is ugly and smelly, but tartar below the gum line leads to periodontal disease: gingivitis (reddening and inflammation of the gums), and periodontitis (loss of bone and soft tissue around the teeth). Left uncontrolled, periodontal disease leads to expensive dental work and oftentimes tooth loss.
Some dogs and cats are more predisposed to dental problems simply because they are brachycephalic (short-nosed dogs and cats like Bulldogs, Boxers, Pugs, Persian cats, Scottish Fold cats, etc.). These dogs and cats tend to do breath more through their mouth than the nose, which dries out the mouth creating a friendly environment for bacterial growth. Additionally, some sighthounds (Italian Greyhounds, Whippets, etc.) because of their long skulls, tight lips, and dry mouths are also prone to gum disease. It's not uncommon for toy breeds like Yorkies to also have dental problems — the roots of their teeth are very small and sometimes not well anchored in their lower jaw.
Wonder why a dry mouth is a problem? It’s because saliva:
- contains contains components that attack plaque causing bacteria,
- contains phosphorus and calcium, which are part of the ongoing process of remineralizing tooth enamel, and
- has antifungal properties.
Dry mouth creates an environment conducive to bacterial growth. You can see that saliva production resulting from prolonged chewing is an important part of dental health for dogs and cats.
So, what can you do to help Fido and Fluffy keep those pearly whites in good shape?
- Consult your vet! You may think those gums look great and not gunked up with tartar, but your vet knows what normal looks like.
- Follow your vet’s advice. If a dental cleaning is needed then there’s no time like the present to have it done. When left untreated, tartar build-up and gum disease only get worse and the dental bills only get higher. Proper dental cleaning, which is the only way to clean below the gum line, must be done in a vet’s office under general anesthesia.
If teeth and gums are in good shape, then it’s time for you take an active daily role. A combination of methods will usually work to maintain clean, healthy teeth:
- Encourage chewing with natural chews treats like yak sticks (a hard cheese made from yak milk) from Himalayan Dog Chews, bully sticks, and cow or pig ears.
- Dental chew bones like Pet Naturals of Vermont Breath Bars and Indigenous Pet Dental Health Bones are a great options if carpet staining or odor is a concern.
- A great safe alternative to rawhide are the No-Hide Chews from Earth Animal. They're fully digestible and, for most dogs, long-lasting.
- Chewing raw, meaty bones like turkey and chicken necks, lamb femurs, and knuckle bones is an effective way to clean teeth. Raw food contains natural enzymes that when combined with saliva helps break bacteria down. And yes, many kitties like to gnaw on bones.
- If raw bones aren’t for you or your pet, then try freeze dried treats. Orijen, Grandma Lucy’s, Stella & Chewy's, and Northwest Naturals all have freeze dried treats suitable for dogs and cats. Freeze-drying preserves the natural enzymes in food. As with raw meat, these enzymes help break down plaque-causing bacteria.
- If you feed an all-kibble diet, consider replacing a breakfast or dinner of dry food with raw food (frozen, air dried, or freeze-dried) a few times a week. Primal, Stella & Chewy's, Nature's Logic, Northwest Naturals, ZiwiPeak, and Real Meat are excellent choices. Contrary to popular belief (an idea created by the advertising industry) kibble doesn’t scrape teeth clean.
- Brush those teeth daily — you may find that your pet enjoys the routine. Most dogs like the vanilla flavor of Kissable toothpaste, but you may find that dental wipes are a great way to start out. Kissable also makes a three-sided toothbrush, designed to clean all three sides of your dog's teeth in one stroke.
- If teeth brushing is difficult, try starting with baby steps. Gently pat some toothpaste on the outside of your dog's lips or on top of your kitty’s paw – your furry friend won’t be able to resist licking it off. With time try placing the toothpaste directly on some of the teeth. Hopefully, with time and patience you can work your way into using a toothbrush.
- Enzymes can be added to food and water if toothbrushing is completely out of the question.