Dental disease affects more than three-quarters of our pet population, and is a disease that can rapidly advance to cause big problems.  More than 50% of your pet’s teeth lie below the gumline where you can’t see what is going on.  Periodontal disease (which means disease of the teeth and surrounding structures) can be happening below the gum if there is plaque or tartar on the teeth, and can lead to pain, infection, gum recession, damage to attachment tissues, behaviour changes, and damage of major organs including the heart, liver and kidneys by seeding bacteria and reactive protein complexes in the blood.

How does periodontal disease start? Plaque on your pet’s teeth is formed by the many millions of bacteria that reside in their mouth, which all gang together to form the biofilm that is plaque.  Plaque is soft and sticky and can be easily scraped off with a toothbrush, or kept in check with products that dissolve it if used regularly enough, but the problem is that within 48 hours it combines with calcium and other minerals found in food and saliva and hardens into calculus (also known as tartar).  This hardened, mineralised calculus is very difficult to remove and can only be removed effectively with a professional scale using ultrasonic equipment.

Prevention of periodontal disease requires ongoing (daily!) home management.  Like we brush our teeth twice a day, and often floss and use other dental hygiene measures as well, and visit our dentist twice a year for a professional clean (if we are doing what we should be doing!), our pets need the same level of care if we are to keep their mouths clean, healthy and pain-free.  Without effective daily plaque control, your pet will be at risk for periodontal disease, and potentially tooth loss and other major diseases.

Below is our 3-step plan to follow for effective home dental care.  If you haven’t been practising any homecare up until this point, however, we recommend starting with a FREE dental check at The Natural Vets, because your pet will likely need an oral health assessment and hygiene treatment to get their mouth clean and comfortable first before any of these measures will be accepted or effective.

1. FEED A RAW NATURAL DIET

Residues from processed foods stick to the teeth forming a perfect environment for bacterial overgrowth and plaque development.  A clean diet consisting of whole foods that are biologically appropriate for your pet will leave less residue in the mouth and on the teeth.  It will also provide essential building blocks for healthy immune system function and resistance to infection.  Switch your pet to a raw, natural diet that includes healthy chewing items daily such as soft edible bones and safe dental chews (we recommend ‘Whimzees’ or ‘V-Dog Breathbones’) for long-term dental and whole body health.

Note that just feeding a natural diet alone is not usually enough to keep your pet’s mouth clean, and so the next two steps are integral components of an effective oral hygiene routine.

2. BRUSH YOUR PET’S TEETH

Daily brushing is the best preventative care tool for controlling plaque build up in the mouth.  The mechanical action of brushing the tooth surface will prevent tartar from adhering to the teeth.  Brushing even three times weekly has been shown to reduce plaque levels.

To establish a daily brushing routine, start with a soft toothbrush, fingerbrush or a piece of washcloth or rough pantyhose. When your pet is relaxed and calm, for example when having a cuddle on the couch at night, start by rubbing them around their face and neck, then quickly slip a finger in under the gumline.  Remove and repeat.  As your pet accepts your finger, start to keep it under their gum for longer periods, and rub the surface of the teeth. Eventually you want your pet to accept having the outside surface of each tooth mechanically brushed, but this may take days, or weeks, or even months for some.  Both dogs and cats can be taught to accept tooth-brushing.

Here is a 10-step technique to master tooth-brushing!

1. Start with a calm, relaxed pet (night-time cuddle time is best)

2. Teach them to accept your hand coming towards their face

3. Teach them to accept you touching their muzzle and lifting their lips

4. Teach them to accept a finger briefly touching their teeth

5. Next incorporate some gauze or pantyhose on your finger and repeat the above steps 2-4

6. Start to brush the outside surfaces of the teeth with the gauze

7. Introduce a toothbrush and repeat steps 2-4, then move onto brushing

8. Introduce toothpaste and repeat step 4, then move onto brushing with the paste

9. Don’t worry about the inside surfaces, most tartar build-up in pets occurs on the outsides of the teeth

10. Make it fun. Allow your pet to just lick the paste and brush in the early days, and even chew on the brush a little, so that it engages them in the process and they find it enjoyable.

Reward your pet each step of the way, being sure to back up if your pet isn’t enjoying the process. You want to make sure it’s a positive experience for you both as this will make it easier and more fun in the long-term. Use treats, or flavoured toothpaste they can lick off your finger to reward them for the desired behaviours, and move on only when they are happily accepting the previous step.  Getting to the stage of toothbrushing may take only days for some pets, and months for others.  Be persistent, don’t give up easily!

When establishing a tooth brushing routine do it consistently.  The less time between brushing events the more quickly your pet is likely to accept it as routine and nothing to worry about.  It is helpful for you and your pet to make the brushing part of your daily routine, so doing the brushing in the same place at the same time and rewarding your pet with a delicious treat such as a Whimzees dental chew afterward can be helpful.

Toothpaste is not an essential part of this routine, what is important is the manual brushing action cleansing the tooth surfaces.  Many animals like flavoured pastes so much they may not sit still for brushing because they are trying to eat the paste!  Flavoured pastes can be useful for some pets to help them enjoy the tooth brushing experience, but are not necessary long-term.  If they make brushing easier, then use them, but if they are just a gooey sticky thing that distracts your pet, skip the paste and give a tasty reward after brushing is finished.

We have developed a natural toothpaste for pets based on diatomaecous earth, bentonite clay, coconut oil and an essential oil blend.  This paste helps to keep teeth clean and bright and the breath sweet smelling.  The oils have been chosen for their anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, soothing and healing properties.  This paste will be of particular benefit to pets who have suffered from significant dental disease where their gum tissues have been compromised by infection and tissue destruction.

There are some useful videos online that demonstrate how to teach tooth brushing in a positive way. We recommend watching the one linked here before you get started, and then once you start, practice often, at least daily.

3. UTILISE EFFECTIVE DENTAL CARE PRODUCTS

There are many dental care products on the market, and not all of them are effective. Products with the VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council) stamp of approval have clinical evidence to show that they decrease plaque and calculus accumulation. Look for the VOHC stamp of approval on the packaging before purchasing dental products. Examples of products that carry the VOHC stamp of approval include Maxiguard oral cleansing gel and Greenies treats. These products work by cleansing the surface of the teeth so that tartar has less chance of adhering.

Plaque control is best achieved with a multi-faceted approach. For example, one might feed a raw natural diet including raw meaty bones, brush the teeth daily, use Maxiguard gel or Imperial Pet Co’s Oral Spray, and feed Whimzees or Breathbones treats daily as part of their dog or cat’s home care plan to prevent the formation of plaque and calculus.

Even with daily home care, every pet should have twice yearly dental exams with your Veterinarian, and some pets may still require prophylactic dental cleaning under anaesthetic every year or more often.

Every pet that undergoes a dental treatment at The Natural Vets can return for three free visits with our dental nursing team to assist you in implementing an effective home dental care program.  This is the time to ask any questions you may have to be sure that the program you are implementing is working for you and your pet.  And remember, if your pet hasn’t had a dental check recently we offer free dental checks with our trained Nursing staff throughout the year at The Natural Vets – please call us on 5476 7674 to book a suitable time.