Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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A Tooth Brush A Day Keeps the Dentist Away


Pet Column for the week of February 20, 2007

Related information:

Services - Dentistry

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

Dog breath isn't the only reason to brush your pet's teeth. Most animals--whether it be dog, cat, or horse--can benefit from some level of dental hygiene. Horses require teeth floating, a process through which the sharp edges of the teeth are filed down to prevent oral ulcers, while dogs and cats benefit from simple brushing to help keep their teeth healthy.

An animal's mouth is an extremely hospitable environment for bacteria; it is warm, moist, and there is a constant supply of food coming in. Bad breath, or halitosis, is caused by a build up of bacteria in your mouth. Luckily, most humans brush their teeth on a regular basis, thereby diminishing some of the bacteria and lessening the chances of dental disease or bacterial infections throughout the body.

Unfortunately, many pets do not get the same oral treatment as we give ourselves, probably because people just don't know that it is important. Tartar and plaque can accumulate on the teeth causing inflammation of the gums surrounding the teeth. This is especially true in toy breed dogs. Smaller breed dogs have the same amount of teeth in their mouth, less bone to surround the teeth, and less space to house them. This results in the teeth being crowded and a more rapid accumulation of tartar and plaque. Older dogs are also at a higher risk of developing inflammation around the teeth.

Dr. Gwenn Schamberger, a veterinarian and former dental resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, Ill., "Brushing your pet's teeth is really the gold standard for dental care."

But lets get serious--not all dogs or cats are going to sit there with their mouths wide open while you scrub away. There is no substitute for a good toothbrush, but there are some other ways to help reduce some of the tartar buildup.

There are certain diets that are considered prescription diets, and can be bought at your veterinarians office, that are specifically formulated as dental diets. These dog or cat foods have a large amount of fiber built into the kibble. This keeps the food together long enough to scrape some of the plaque off of teeth.

Dental chews are always a good way to help improve dental health, and serve two functions because they often allow dogs to have an outlet for their instinct to chew. Caution should be used when choosing a dental chew for your pet. Over-zealous chewing on hard chew toys can result in painful dental fractures and chewing large pieces off of chew toys leading to intestinal problems. Always monitor your pets when giving chew treats.

Chew treats with plaque-reducing additives seem to have a reasonable efficacy. However, Dr. Schamberger reminds us that these additives work on a contact time basis. The longer they are on a tooth, the better they work.
Rinses can be beneficial. There are a number of veterinary rinses sold over the counter. You should use caution when selecting a rinse because xylitol, a common ingredient in rinses, can cause hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, in animals.

When shopping for an oral health additive for your animal it is important to look for the label "VOHC," which stands for Veterinary Oral Health Council. This council is in place to protect consumers from buying products that may not have been tested and whose efficacy may not be proven.

Recent human studies have shown that brushing teeth with toothpaste as opposed to using water yielded only a three percent increase in plaque removal. It doesn't really matter what you put on the brush, it just matters that you brush. Often, animals really like the toothpaste and this can add to the enjoyment of the brushing process.

To get your pet to allow you to brush its teeth it is best to start when they are young. Work slowly. First start with pet toothpaste on your finger and allow them to lick it off. Then lift their lip. Next try brushing one tooth at a time and so on until brushing is not something to be dreaded by animals and owners alike.

With simple measures taken towards dental health you can provide your pet that little extra assurance that it can remain healthy, happy, and active.

For more information about dental health for your pet, contact your local veterinarian.