03/04/2013 03:21 pm ET Updated May 04, 2013

To the Teeth: Arm Your Pet Against Dental Disease

February was Pet Dental Health Month. Sound familiar? By now, you've probably gotten a coupon from your vet offering a discounted dental cleaning, or an email from your favorite pet supplier spotlighting sales on everything from pet toothpaste to specially-formulated dental chews.

If you've relegated these notices to the trash, you're probably not alone. Despite the desire to give our pets the very best, dental hygiene is one of pet parents' most frequently forgotten responsibilities. Perhaps it is because dental care hasn't traditionally been part of our conversations about pet health (I know I grew up without a thought to brushing the family dog's teeth), but what we now know about the health implications of poor oral hygiene is a reality we can no longer ignore.

According to the American Animal Hospital Association, two-thirds of pet guardians do not provide the regular dental care recommended by veterinarians (and only one percent of us are actually brushing our pets' teeth). As a result, a staggering 85 percent of dogs and cats older than three have already suffered dental or gum disease. And what's more, dental disease left unchecked can lead to more serious infections of the liver, kidneys and the heart -- the body part which is February's true muse.

This month, I challenge you to excuse-proof your thinking about pets and their pearly whites, and commit to clean teeth (and healthy hearts)! Here are some truths to guide you:

Excuse #1: Wild animals don't have anyone brushing their teeth, and they make out just fine.
Reality check: Consider the dietary habits of domesticated pets, and you can start to see why this logic is flawed. Sure, animals in the wild don't have people brushing their teeth for them, but they are also killing and eating prey whole (bones and all), which helps regulate tartar and plaque in a way that our pets' diets -- especially canned food -- do not. Another thing to think about is a wild animal's life span; an outdoor cat lives for an average of two to five years. Your pet cat will live far longer, due in part to his access to preventative health care like good oral hygiene!

Excuse #2: My pet will not tolerate a tooth brushing.
Reality check: No matter how much your pet objects, it is still your responsibility to care for his teeth. Try dental-formula treats, chews and mouth rinses. Get some tips from a vet or trainer on easing your dog or cat into feeling more comfortable with the process (hint: a finger brush is a good first step), and if you simply cannot brush teeth at home, then you may want to think about scheduling a professional cleaning at the vet.

Excuse #3: I don't have time to brush my pet's teeth.
Reality check: Did you have time to watch the season finale of Downton Abbey? Then you have a few minutes to squeeze in a cleaning. Picking a specific time each week for the task will help you stick to it; maybe a before-bedtime ritual will work for you, or after a bath. Note it on the calendar the way you do with heartworm and flea/tick reminders, and get the job done!

Excuse #4: My pet's teeth look white and healthy, so I don't see the need for brushings.
Reality check: Plaque, gingivitis, infections and the early signs of oral cancers are not always visible to the naked eye. Your pet may appear to have phenomenal chompers and still be suffering from periodontal disease, and as oral cavity bacteria moves from his mouth to his bloodstream, his internal organ systems will suffer, too. In dental health -- as in life! -- what's beneath the surface matters most.

Excuse #4: I don't want to spend money on dental products on top of all of the regular stuff I buy my pet.
Reality check: This kind of thinking is putting a price on your pet's health -- and costing him dearly down the road. The less you care for your pet's teeth at home, the more often professional veterinary intervention will be necessary. And as you all know, that comes with a pretty price tag. The least expensive method of maintaining your pet's oral health is prevention. A toothbrush and pet-formulated toothpaste can be had for under $20. The discipline to use them is priceless!