Have You Brushed Your Pet's Teeth?

Lisa Fithian, center, with Three Rivers Climate Convergence, marches with other members of her group down the streets of downtown Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
February is National Pet Dental Health month. So what better time to take the bite out of gum disease in our pets?

Man's best friend is notorious for having the world's worst breath. But what seems like just an annoyance could mean serious health problems. Our resident veterinarian Debbye Turner offered advice on The Saturday Early Show.

Unusually bad breath could indicate tartar build up, or worse, gum disease. According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats show signs of oral disease by the age of 3. And your pet's heart health could depend on your attention to your pet's teeth. Yes, bad teeth could be deadly!

How do you know if your pet's teeth are clean? Lift lips and look at the teeth. They should be shiny, white, and healthy looking. The gums should be pink but not reddened, swollen or diseased looking. Your pet's breath should be "reasonable," not putrid or rotten smelling. There should be no sores or lesions on the gums.

Consequences of poor dental hygiene:

Calculi/Tartar: (Plaque)
This is the yellowish, brownish build up that occurs at the base of the teeth where the teeth meet the gums. This material is full of bacteria. If left untreated, it will lead to periodontal disease and many other devastating health conditions. Plaque is the combination of saliva and food debris that sticks to the teeth. As calcium salts are deposited in this build up, tartar develops.

The gums become inflamed, reddened from a build up of tartar on the teeth. This is reversible with proper teeth cleaning by a veterinarian.

Periodontal disease:
Gingivitis will lead to periodontal disease if left untreated. The gums become infected and recede from the teeth. The ligaments surrounding the root of the teeth are damaged. Even the bone of the jaw itself can be damaged. There can be an accumulation of pus and even bleeding. This is all very painful. The pet will stop eating, lose weight as a result, and show reluctance to being touched on the face and head. Periodontal disease is not reversible. The progress can only be stopped by the proper professional treatment. You don't want to let your pet's mouth get to this point!

Oro-nasal fistulas:
These are non-healing "tracks" that open up between the mouth and nose. Often the dog will have sneezing fits that lead to a bleeding nose. These must be repaired by a specialist who is skilled in oral surgery.

Feline Odontoclastic Resorptive Lesions:
FORL is caused by the activation of odontoclast that attack the teeth. The crown of the tooth will eventually snap off and the gum will grow over the remaining root. This is very painful! Researchers don't know what activates the odontoclasts, but there is a higher incidence in Siamese and oriental cats, and immunosuppressed cats (FeLv and FIV positive cats).

Broken lower jaw:
In smaller breeds, extremely advanced stages of periodontal disease can lead to mandibular fracture.

Kidney, liver, or heart disease:
The abundance of bacteria present in tartar can gain access to the bloodstream through the compromised gums that are affected by periodontal disease. These bacteria-laden plaques can lodge in the valves of the heart, liver, kidney, and even the lungs. These situations are life-threatening and can lead to death.

When is it time to get your pet's teeth cleaned? Contrary to popular belief, your pet's breath should not be inordinately bad.

  • A rotten, putrid smell is probably an indication that the teeth and/or gums need medical attention.

  • If there is an abundance of yellow/brown/black build up on the teeth just below the gums, then it is time to have them professionally cleaned by a veterinarian.

  • Also, if the gums look reddened and/or swollen it's time to take your pet to a vet.

  • If your pet stops eating, lift the lips and look in the mouth. There may be a foreign object lodged in the mouth that is causing difficulty eating. Or severe gum disease will be so painful that the pet stops eating altogether. .

  • Persistent salivation could be a tip-off that something is wrong in the mouth.

Pet owners should take steps to keep the pet's teeth cleaned by feeding hard food. There are now food formulations specifically designed for reducing tartar build up. These seem to be rather effective. But the best way to keep your pet's teeth and gums healthy is to brush the teeth at home regularly -- every day is preferable, but a few times a week will be quite helpful. The pet owner should use toothpaste that is specially formulated for animals. This is safe for swallowing. DO NOT USE HUMAN TOOTHPASTE. Do not use baking soda to brush your pet's teeth. Plus, use a toothbrush made for pets. They are soft and non-abrasive to the pet's teeth.

It is important to teach your pet to tolerate getting her (or his) teeth brushed. So it is best to start this ritual very early in life. However, it is never too late to start. It will just take a little longer to acclimate the pet to the process. Turner strongly recommends that you have your veterinarian demonstrate the proper method before you get started.

You should first slowly touch or pet the pet's muzzle to make sure she will allow this action. Then, lift the lips to expose the teeth. Use a pet toothbrush or soft cloth to brush each tooth using a gentle circular motion. The pet's mouth can remain closed during this process. No need to agitate her further by trying to force the jaw open. Start with the back teeth and work your way forward to the incisors. If the pet will allow, brush the inside surface of the teeth, too.

At least once a year, the pet's teeth should be professionally cleaned by a veterinarian. This requires putting the pet under anesthesia and usually a course of antibiotics. Some pets are prone to building tartar faster than others, and so need to have their teeth cleaned more often than once a year. Your veterinarian will assist you in determining the proper dental hygiene program for your pet.