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Pet Dental Care Begins at Home


Pet Column for the week of January 30, 2006

Related information:

Services - Dentistry

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

February is National Pet Dental Health Month, and a great time to start home dental care for your pet. Dental health is important for overall health. Combined with the dental component of your pet's annual wellness examination, a home dental care regimen can prevent pain and expense in the long run.

Brushing your pet's teeth may sound like a tiresome task, but Dr. Bill Krug, a resident in veterinary dentistry and oral surgery at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital, says, "Please try it. Think about how you'd feel if you went one or two days without brushing your teeth; now think about what your teeth would be like after eight or nine years without cleaning."

Like humans, pets can get bacterial and tartar buildup on their teeth, leading to deep gum disease, or periodontitis. The gums and underlying bone recede as a consequence of the untreated infection, resulting in loose, painful teeth, inflamed gums, and exposed roots.

"We see a lot of cases of severe damage and discomfort that could be prevented with regular dental hygiene," says Dr. Krug. If the task of tooth brushing seems daunting at first, he suggests taking "baby steps" toward a dental hygiene routine.

Start gradually by holding your pet and looking into its mouth. (Of course, if you think you may get bitten, don't put yourself in danger, and find an alternative to brushing.) Lift the lips so you can examine the teeth. As your pet gets more comfortable with this, try putting some veterinary toothpaste on your finger and rubbing it on the teeth.

Some pets may find this a pleasant experience, since most veterinary toothpastes are flavored, and they may like the petting and attention. Many veterinary toothpastes fight bacteria and tartar by activating antibacterial salivary enzymes.

After your pet gets used to your rubbing its teeth and gums, you can try wrapping gauze around your finger or using a soft rubber finger brush on your index finger. This can help get more food debris off the teeth. With small strides like these, Dr. Krug says, your pet may let you brush its teeth with a regular pet toothbrush within a few weeks.

Brushing is the most effective way of removing food debris, thus minimizing bacterial growth and tartar formation. It takes a good deal of patience and persistence, but the few minutes a day you invest can prevent future discomfort, disease, and expense.

Dental disease is painful and can become costly to treat; untreated, it can lead to systemic problems such as kidney, liver, and respiratory infection as bacteria travel from the mouth through the bloodstream. Tooth and gum infections can weaken the facial bones and mandible, predisposing your pet to mandibular fractures and eye infections.

Although Dr. Krug insists that brushing is the best preventive measure against dental disease, he acknowledges that some pets just won't stand for it. For those pets, alternatives such as rinses, chew toys, and special diets can help. Dental rinses that you can add to your pet's drinking water can help reduce bacterial and tartar buildup.

Chew toys, such as rope bones, nylon bones, and crocheted "mice," can help scrape food debris off teeth. Rawhide chews, too, can help clean teeth, but Dr. Krug advises against cow bones and pig hooves available in some pet stores, since they are hard enough to cause painful tooth fractures. Special dental chews, such as C.E.T. treats for dogs and cats, are infused with enzymes that help kill bacteria.

More brands of foods now offer "dental" formulas, and Dr. Krug explains that the strategy behind some of these diets is a larger size kibble that can scrape the teeth clean as the pet bites into the food.

Good dental care begins at home and can save pain and expense in the long run. For more information about a home dental care regimen, contact your local veterinarian or visit the Web site of the American Veterinary Dental College at http://www.avdc.org.