By David Brooks MRCVS of Pet Insurance Expert.
Dogs cannot brush their own teeth. This may seem like stating the obvious, but there are a huge number of dogs out there with severe dental disease that desperately need treatment. Most owners are unaware of their dogs teeth problem until either a vet checks the dogs mouth, or the mouth becomes so sore and breath so foul that the owners attention is drawn to it.
As your dentist will advise you, preventative dental care is a much better strategy than waiting for a problem to occur and then dealing with it. Dogs do not tend to suffer from cavities as humans do, but often get periodontal (gum) disease, which is painful.
Are some dogs more likely to get dental disease than others?
Yes. There is a lot of breed variation in the susceptibility to periodontal disease. Toy breeds such as Yorkshire Terriers have very soft gums and, if their teeth are not brushed regularly, they often require dental scaling and polishing at just a few years of age. Larger breeds such as Golden Retrievers and Labradors have harder gums and rarely need any dental treatment, even without brushing. However, any pet can develop dental disease and any good vet will check a dogs mouth as part of a routine annual check up to advise whether any dental treatment is necessary.
Clearly diet plays a major role in the development of dental disease. Dogs that eat a dry biscuit based or complete diet are less likely to get periodontal disease compared with dogs on wet tinned food merely due to the crunchy hard food helping to stop tartar attaching to the teeth. Some owners supplement their dogs diet with chews specifically designed to help clean teeth, just like it is said that eating a crunchy apple helps to keep a humans teeth clean. However, just like in humans, diet alone is not enough for some dogs and brushing may be necessary if you are to avoid the prospect of dental scaling and polishing under general anesthetic further down the line.
How do I know if my dog has dental disease?
The common signs to look out for are:
- Discolouration of the teeth, with yellow/brown tartar (known as calculus) adhering to the teeth, mainly on the cheek side.
- Reddening of the gums (known as gingivitis).
- Recession on the gum to expose some of the tooth root.
- Bad breath (halitosis).
- Dribbling more than is usual.
- Reluctance to bite on hard objects such as sticks and toys.
- Difficulty eating dry biscuit type foods.
How do I go about brushing my dogs teeth?
Firstly, buy a suitable toothbrush. Human toothbrushes are usually too hard for dogs, though can be used if they have soft bristles. Ideally you want a toothbrush with a long handle and an angled head to better fit the mouth, and extra soft bristles. An alternative is using a finger brush, which fits over the tip of your finger.
Next, find a suitable toothpaste. Dogs do not really like the mint taste of human toothpastes, so the whole operation will run more smoothly if you use a toothpaste designed for pets. Some pet toothpastes come in meaty flavors so that your pet enjoys the experience. These pet toothpastes usually contain enzymes that help control plaque. Fluoride may be incorporated to help control bacteria. Tip: try placing the toothpaste between the bristles if you can rather than on the top of them, as this will achieve better cleaning.
Now you have the equipment, try brushing the teeth. Most pets will accept this if you are gentle. It is much easier if you start when they are puppies so that they are accustomed to the procedure, but even older dogs can grow to accept it. The outside of the teeth (the cheek side) is the most important to clean, as the dogs tongue helps clean the inside of the teeth to an extent.
The toothbrush bristles should be placed where the teeth and gums meet at a 45 degree angle. The movement should be in an oval pattern. Try to gently force the bristle ends into the area around the base of the tooth as well as into the gap between the teeth. Aim for ten short back-and-forth motions, covering several teeth at a time, then move the brush to a new location.
When starting for the first time, do it twice daily without toothpaste for 1-2 weeks. This way your dog will become familiar with the feel of the brush quickly, and you can then start doing it with toothpaste. In the long term, twice weekly brushing is usually adequate.
My dog already has a rotten mouth, need I be worried about getting his/her teeth done at the vets?
As long as your dog does not have a pre-existing heart or respiratory problem, you need not be worried. Even if they do, chances are your dog will be fine. Dental scaling and polishing is done on a daily basis at many veterinary clinics, and does not have any risks in itself beyond the anesthetic risk that exists with every general anesthetic. Many clinics will do pre-anesthetic blood tests for geriatric patients as a matter of protocol, to check on their liver and kidney function. If your dog has severe periodontal disease, he/she may require teeth to be extracted. This is not something you should worry about in itself, as it is much better for your dog to have no tooth than a painful tooth.
If you think your dog might require professional dental treatment, you should book an appointment with your vet ASAP. Many dogs develop a new lease of life when their mouth suddenly becomes pain free, it may be the greatest gift you could ever give your pet.
David Brooks MRCVS is part of the veterinarian team at Pet Insurance Expert, the most comprehensive resource on pet insurance in the UK. Learn about the different pet insurance options and find the best pet insurance for your pet.