A Pet Owner's Guide to Dental Care

As much as in humans, dental health is an important part of your pet's overall health. Pets, like their owners, can get cavities, loose teeth and tooth abscesses. If your pet has bad breath it can be a sign of periodontal disease resulting from a build-up of plaque. If plaque is not removed, your pet can end up with a bacterial infection. The bacterial infection can spread through his bloodstream into your pet's body systems where it can damage his liver, kidneys, even his heart and brain.

Take the offense in protecting your pet from periodontal disease by brushing his teeth. Brushing your pet's teeth should not be a chore or uncomfortable for either party; it should be a regular and fun part of your routine! There are a number of steps that you as an owner can take to keep your dog or cat's teeth sparkling white.

Begin by acclimating your pet to having your fingers in and around his mouth. Start by dipping one of your fingers in beef or chicken broth or bouillon so this new exercise seems less scary and unfamiliar and more delicious for him. Slowly and gently, rub a bouillon-flavored finger over your pet's teeth and gums. Remember to take your time and shower your pet with praise! After doing this a few times your pet should look forward to it, so he's ready for the next step.

Wrap a piece of gauze around your finger and again dip it in bouillon. This is going to simulate feeling of your pet having his teeth brushed. If your pet is relaxed and comfortable, gently rub your finger in circular motions over your pet's teeth. Continue with this step until your pet is used to the action of brushing with the gauze.

The next step is getting your dog or cat used to the dental tool you will be using to actually brush his teeth. This may be a toothbrush made especially for pets, a dental sponge or a dental pad. These items often have strange new consistencies or textures for your pet. Let your pet lick something he likes off the toothbrush or pad so he becomes familiar with the texture.

Once used to the dental tool of your choosing, you can add to it a pet-specific toothpaste or rinse. Pets cannot use human toothpastes for a few reasons. Our toothpaste is inedible, which is why we do not ingest it. Your pet does not spit as we do so they require an edible toothpaste. Many human toothpastes also contain xylitol which may cause liver failure in dogs.

While not the minty flavors we are accustomed to, pet toothpastes are often come in varieties such as beef, chicken, malt or other flavor pets find appealing. Get your pet used to both the flavor and consistency of his toothpaste by applying it to your finger and letting him lick it off. Go a step further by applying a small amount of the toothpaste along your pet's tooth and gumline with your finger. Make sure to praise and encourage your pet so they associate this taste with a good experience!

After your pet is used to you handling his mouth, the sensation of having his teeth brushed with gauze, the texture of toothbrush bristles and the flavor and texture of the toothpaste you have chosen it is time to brush his teeth. Encourage your pet by using a happy and calm voice as you apply toothpaste to his brush and begin brushing. To get your pet used to brushing, consider beginning with just his upper canine teeth. They are the large set of teeth at the front of his mouth. Continue slowly as your pet allows you to brush a few teeth at a time and gradually progress until you are able to brush all of his teeth. When you praise your pet at the end of each exercise he will associate having his teeth brushed as a great game and quality time spent with you.

For more information about your pet's oral hygiene, explore the following helpful resources:

National Pet Dental Health Month is February

Clean Teeth are Essential to Your Pet's Overall Health

Dental Care Helps Pets Live Longer (PDF)

Dental Disease in Pets

AAHA Dental Care Guidelines

Brushing Your Cat's Teeth: An Instructional Video

Brushing Your Dog's Teeth: An Instructional Video

Dental Anatomy of Dogs

Rabbit Teeth Problems

Dental Disease in Rabbits, Guinea Pigs and Chinchillas (PDF)