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How to Keep Foul Breath at Bay

Pet Column for the week of February 18, 2008

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Services - Dentistry

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

Diseases and disorders of the mouth can afflict any animal from your couch potato dog to the lion at the zoo. Proper dental hygiene should be a part of every pet owner's routine in order to ensure that your precious pet does not fall victim to dental disease.

According to Dr. Carol Akers, a veterinarian and dentistry resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, it is important to understand that bad breath in a pet is not normal. Unless Fido has a bad habit of sneaking snacks from your cat's litter box, his foul breath is a sure sign that something is wrong in his mouth.

The most common problem that veterinarians see in pets is periodontal disease. This is characterized by the loss of the supporting structure of the tooth. Without a proper dental hygiene regimen in place your pet's teeth will quickly become covered in plaque, a sticky biofilm of bacteria and bacterial by-products. Brushing your pet's teeth daily will remove this film; however if left on the surface of the teeth the plaque will mineralize and harden to form tartar.

The dangerous part of periodontal disease comes not from the tartar itself but from the bacteria that is attracted to it. When tartar pushes up above the gum line, the bacteria moves with it and is able to eat away at the surface of the tooth, the gum surrounding the tooth, and the bone holding the tooth in place. The infection and tissue damage that results from the bacteria is what brings about the foul breath that many owners are plagued with.

As always, prevention is the best medicine when it comes to dental disease. The best way to keep your pet's mouth free and clear of infection is to brush its teeth daily, just as you would your own.

"Imagine what your teeth would look and feel like if they were only brushed once or twice a month, or even never brushed at all," says Dr. Akers. "Daily brushing is the absolute best way to prevent periodontitis and other dental diseases."

According to Dr. Akers, the key of tooth brushing is to mechanically remove the plaque and food particles that build up on the surface of the teeth throughout the day. A wide range of tooth brushes and tooth paste flavors are available for pet owners looking to keep their pets' smiles sparkling. When brushing your pet's teeth it is important to use toothpaste that is made specifically for pets since the fluoride and other chemicals in human toothpastes are toxic to animals.

Of course if your pet absolutely will not allow you to brush its teeth then the next step would be providing safe chew toys that will help to remove plaque build-up on the surface of the teeth. When picking out a chew toy for your pet it is important to pick one that will clean the teeth without damaging them. If the item is too hard the animal can actually chip or break a tooth.

"My rule for chew toys is that if you can pound a nail with it, the toy is too hard for your dog's teeth, which means bones, be they real, plastic, or nylon should never be given to a pet," explains Dr. Akers.

Besides tooth brushing and chew toys there are a variety of antiseptic mouth washes and specially-designed treats and foods that you can use to help care for your pet's teeth. Owners should begin using these preventative measures as soon as they bring their new pet home. In the case of puppies and kittens it is also important to monitor how the animal's adult teeth are coming in and whether the deciduous (baby) teeth are falling out normally.

"If you notice that your pet has retained any baby teeth it is important to have those teeth removed immediately," says Dr. Akers. "If those teeth are allowed to stay in they will permanently alter the position of the adult teeth, which can be an extremely painful condition for the pet to live with."

Even with the best preventative care it is still likely that your pet will need to have some dental work done in its lifetime. In order to recognize when it is time for your pet to visit the vet it is important to watch for signs such as bad breath, excessive drooling, loss of interest in chewing or playing, and swelling on the face or around the eyes. These are all signs and symptoms of various painful dental diseases that require immediate veterinary attention.

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