Could your dog's breath melt your glasses? Does your cat's smile look like five miles of bad road? Pet tooth problems can be surprisingly similar to their owners' dental issues. Here are common dental issues you share with your cats and dogs, as well as ways to avoid them.
Stinky mouth odor , referred to as halitosis, develops when bacteria grows on the tooth surface or tongue. Mouthwash and chewing gum may mask your halitosis, but dogs and cats don't gargle. They don't spit, either, making fluorinated products dangerous for pets when they're swallowed. There are rinses that can be added to pet water bowls that help freshen breath, and dogs may benefit from "dental" chew toys that offer some cleaning properties or incorporate bacteria-killing enzymes.
Plaque develops when bacteria mineralizes into hard yellow to brown deposits on the teeth, often at the gum line. People typically remove most of this by brushing, flossing, and even chewing "detergent-type" foods like apples. Some dogs enjoy carrots and apples, but most pets tend to gulp mouthfuls of food without too much chewing. Cats and dogs also lack opposable thumbs that make brushing or flossing possible.
Gingivitis -- redness and swelling of the gums -- happens when the bacteria in the plaque releases enzymes that cause inflammation. People might see blood on the toothbrush. Owners might see blood on the dog's chew toy.
Receding gums develop as a result of the inflammation and form pockets around the tooth that expose bone, leading to loose teeth and bone loss. People with painful mouths and loose teeth complain to the dentist. But cats and dogs generally eat through the pain without showing much discomfort until it's very bad.
Periodontal disease (decayed teeth, sore gums, bleeding mouths) affects 80 percent of pets by the age of three. Besides mouth and tooth problems, chewing pumps bacteria into the bloodstream and that damages the heart, liver and kidneys in both people and pets.
Cavities don't affect pets in the same way as people, but cats can develop a sneaky kind of cavity called resportive lesions. The decay is hidden and starts at or below the gum line, eating the tooth from the inside out and leaving a fragile shell that can break. Up to 75 percent of cats with dental disease have one or more lesions that usually can't be fixed.
Brushing teeth, as with people, is the first line of defense for both dogs and for cats. Yes, you can teach pets to tolerate or even welcome tooth brushing. Meat-flavored toothpastes with plaque-retardant enzymes and pet-size brushes used after each meal -- or at least a couple of times a week -- help enormously to reduce bad breath and plaque control.
Dentistry treats pet teeth in a similar fashion as humans, but since dogs and cats won't open wide and say "ah" a professional veterinary dentistry requires anesthesia. Trying to clean pet teeth without anesthesia can be much less effective. Most veterinarians provide ultrasonic scaling, polishing, tooth extraction and antibiotics with pain medication when necessary. Veterinary dental specialists also perform root canals, provide crowns and even offer pet orthodontia (braces) to correct misaligned teeth that cause the pet discomfort.
Dental "treats" and specially-formulated diets are available to improve cat and dog dental health. Look for the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) Seal of Acceptance, which endorses such products.
Keep both your relationship and your pets' breath smelling sweet. Don't limit it to this month, either, but use the opportunity to "brush up" on the facts of your pet's tooth health.
Amy D. Shojai, CABC, is a certified animal behavior consultant and the award-winning author of 23 pet care books. She also writes for puppies.about.com and cats.about.com and appears on Animal Planet's CATS-101 and DOGS-101. Check out Amy's latest book, "Pet Care in the New Century: Cutting-Edge Medicine for Dogs & Cats" and on Red Room, where you can read her blog and buy her books.
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