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Maintaining Your Dog's Dental Health

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A dog's dental health is very important. Their teeth are as vulnerable as ours are to disease. Start caring for your pets’ teeth today and at least 70 per cent of adult dogs and cats have dental disease of some kind. They rely on their owners to make sure their teeth and oral health are in good order, as they cannot brush their own teeth or take themselves to the dentist regularly as we do.

Poor dental health can be a source of long term pain and discomfort. Often owners are unaware of this because most animals do not cry out in pain but tolerate it. Dental disease in older pets can be even more difficult to spot, as early signs can be thought of as the pet getting old. It is only when there is a change or improvement in behaviour that people realise how much pain the pet with dental disease was in. Pain can be exhibited in many ways including a reluctance to play with certain toys, a reluctance to eat (or eating on one side), pawing at the mouth (some cats have a specific condition – feline orofacial pain syndrome, which can be difficult to treat and is distressing for cat and owner) or pain on touch of the mouth area.

Halitosis, tartar or calculus build up, pus and bleeding are signs of dental disease in the mouth ( or in the case of halitosis before the mouth is opened). Importantly, an infection in the mouth can spread to other parts of the body via the bloodstream (or inhaled from their own breath) and cause disease at distant organs such as the kidneys, hearts and joints.

Plaque is a mixture of bacteria, saliva components and cell debris that forms a thin film on teeth within hours of being removed. When this forms at the junction between the gum and tooth different bacteria thrive due to less oxygen being present. Toxins produced by these bacteria cause inflammation to the gums or gingivitis. Minerals from saliva can combine with the plaque and form hard deposits on the teeth called tartar or calculus. Tartar has a rough surface and is thus an ideal environment for bacteria to thrive. Gingivitis is reversible but if left will progress to periodontal disease, which is not. There is damage to the structural support of teeth in periodontal disease, which will result eventually in the tooth being lost.

Plaque forms on teeth daily but the build-up of plaque and tartar is preventable with regular dental care at home. Diet can have a big role in influencing the build-up of tartar on teeth. A good quality dry food is statistically less likely to result in tartar build-up than wet food, as less food sticks to the teeth. Some dry food diets are specifically designed to scrub the teeth, as the large kibble is broken up by the teeth, while others contain specific elements and nutrient blends to reduce plaque (the precursor to tartar). For dogs we would recommend Hills Prescription Diet T/D Dental Health and Royal Canin Dental Dog Food. Any change in the diet should be performed gradually to allow the gut to cope with the change in nutrients. If you are feeding your pet both dry and wet food keep the two in separate bowls as adding the wet food to the dry makes the dry food soggy. It then loses the benefit of not sticking to the teeth.

Dental chews can be very easy to use in dogs. The physical action of chewing helps to remove plaque and increase saliva production, which contains anti-bacterial agents and also helps rinse the mouth. Any chew used needs to be the correct size for the dog’s mouth (too large and the dog cannot cope with the chew, too small and the benefit of chewing is lost) and not too rich as they are given as a daily supplement to the diet. Care should be taken when offering bones to pets to chew, especially cooked bones, as they can splinter causing damage to the gut or can damage the teeth causing enamel chipping or tooth fracture.

Kong has also developed a range of dental toys which provide gentle abrasive cleaning and conditioning of teeth and gums. Kong’s patented Denta Ridges help to reduce plaque, clean teeth, and massage gums, and can also be stuffed with treats.The very best way to care for a pet’s teeth and mouth is by tooth brushing. It is possible to get adult dogs and cats to accept tooth brushing, but this is easier if started as part of their daily routine while young. Human toothpastes are not appropriate for pets – they contain fluoride which we can spit out. Pet toothpaste contains flavours that pets love including malt, meat and fish. If there is any sign of dental disease this should be treated by a vet before starting tooth brushing – we wouldn’t like a painful area of our mouth brushed either.

Once any inflammation has resolved the brushing routine can be started. Taking the process slowly is the best way to achieve success, as well as praise and rewards. Initially, just getting the pet used to the taste of the toothpaste is helpful – they can lick it from an owner’s hand. Then a finger brush can be employed, so they get used to the circular brushing motion on their teeth, but owners should have good control of what the brushing is doing. The circular motion should be concentrated on the area of the tooth next to the gum line, and only the outer surface of the teeth needs to be brushed. Ultimately once this is tolerated owners can progress to using a soft bristled toothbrush using the same circular motion. The toothbrush should be replaced every two months, and a separate brush should be used for each pet.

Mouthwashes are also available and these contain antibacterial agents and are designed to reduce the bacterial load in the mouth, and hence, inflammation.

Regular check-ups with a vet are essential, as any changes can be readily noted and action taken. The examination of the mouth is part of any routine health check as oral health is so important for the health of the rest of the body.

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