Bad breath, inflamed gums, inexplicable excessive drooling, reluctance to eat, tartar build-up, and an expensive dental vet bill are common situations that spur a pet parent to seek advice on dental care for their furry friend. Like most people you might not brush your pet’s teeth daily, or ever, however dental health is extremely important to their overall well-being. Although teeth brushing can be an effective way to keep teeth and gums healthy, for dogs and cats there are other, more fun ways to keep their chompers in good shape.

The goal of daily dental care is to prevent periodontal disease by reducing plaque build-up. Although plaque is nothing more than bacterial film that sticks to teeth, when it’s allowed to accumulate on teeth it combines with saliva and mineralizes, forming tartar (dental calculus). Tartar that forms above the gum line is ugly, 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, Newfies, Pugs, Yorkies, Persian cats, Scottish Fold cats, etc.) causing them to be mouth breathers, which dries out the mouth crating an 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.

Wonder why a dry mouth is a problem? It’s because saliva:
  • contains contains components that attacks plaque causing bacteria,
  • contains phosphorus and calcium, which are part of the ongoing process of remineralizing tooth enamel, and 
  • has antifungal properties.
Decreased saliva creates an environment conducive to bacterial growth. So 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?
  1. Consult your vet! You may think those gums look great and not gunked up with tartar, but your vet knows what normal looks like.
  2. 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 cleanings, which is the only way to clean below the gum line, must be done in a vet’s office under general anesthesia.
  3. If the teeth and gums are in good shape, then it’s time for you take an active daily role. A combination of some of these methods will usually work to maintain clean, healthy teeth:
    • Encourage chewing with natural chews treats like Himalayan chews, bully sticks, and pig ears.
    • Dental chew bones like Breath Bars and Terrabones are a great option if carpet staining or odor is a concern.
    • 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 food down.  And yes, many kitties do like to gnaw on bones.
    • If raw bones aren’t for you or your pet, then try freeze dried treats. Orijen, Grandma Lucy’s, and Northwest Naturals all have freeze dried treats cats suitable for dogs and cats. Freeze-drying preserves the natural enzymes in food so, 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 LogicNorthwest Naturals, ZiwiPeak, and Real Meat are excellent choices. The carbohydrates in the kibble (starch is integral to forming kibble so it's a major component) provide the perfect food that dental bacteria feed on. Contrary to popular belief (an idea created by the advertising industry) kibble doesn’t scrape teeth clean any better than breakfast cereal cleans your teeth, however the starch does tend to stick to teeth. However, there are some foods that claim to contain pumice, special vegetable fibers, or other ingredients that will clean teeth, but if you read the ingredient label you may become skeptical.
    • Brush those teeth daily — start out with a baby-step approach and you’ll find that your pet enjoys the routine. Most dogs like the vanilla flavor of Kissable toothpaste, but dental wipes like Kissable dental wipes are a great way to start out.
    • If teeth brushing is difficult, consider PetzLife oral gels and sprays — they are designed for both dogs and cats. These products can be patted on the outside of your dog’s lips or on top of your kitty’s paw, and your furry friend won’t be able to resist licking it off.
    • Enzymes can be added to food and water if toothbrushing is completely out of the question.

One final note, just as with people, the bacteria that leads to gum disease, bone loss, and consequently tooth loss, has also been shown to lead to heart and kidney disease, as well as other chronic diseases. Healthy teeth is just one part of a healthy body.