February is Dental Health Awareness Month
Did you know that February is Dental Health Awareness Month for our pets? The Ontario SPCA and our friends at Royal Canin want to remind caregivers that, like us, our pets need regular dental care, and that care should happen year-round and not just during the month of February.
Dental health needs vary
There is no “one size fits all” situation for dental health, but there are lots of options for our pets to live their best life. All pets are different, and they will develop tartar at differing rates. Our pet’s age, size, breed, genetics, and lifestyle can all contribute to the development and progression of dental disease. In fact, a recently published study showed that small dogs are at higher risk of developing tartar and dental disease than larger dogs and they tend to show evidence of dental tartar at a much younger age. Cats seem to fall somewhere in the middle.
View infographic here.
Daily tooth brushing is the first line of defense
In a perfect world, we would train all our puppies and kittens to allow daily teeth brushing just like we do with our furless children. I know that this takes time and commitment from you, but it can be done. This approach is the gold standard and the ideal situation. This is what we do for ourselves and certainly the data supports that human health improved dramatically when society moved to daily dental care for the masses.
Our pets are no different in their needs and so early training and a commitment to brushing will ultimately help our pets be as healthy as possible in addition to minimizing mouth pain. Have you ever had a toothache? When our pets have dental disease, their mouths can be very painful and in very small pets, dental disease can even increase the risk of jaw fractures!
Speak to your veterinarian about the best approach and product for your animal. Make sure to never use human toothpaste or rinses for your animal.
Okay, I know what you are thinking right now. First, what if I have a pet who isn’t a puppy or kitten, or second, life is so busy that I can barely get my own teeth brushed so brushing my pet’s teeth is a no go! Don’t worry, we can help you get started at improving your pet’s dental health.
Teach an old dog new tricks
What you may be thinking: my pet isn’t a baby anymore and has never had his/her teeth brushed, so I’m sure that it is not worth trying. WRONG. That old saying of “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a complete fallacy which is propagated by people who simply don’t want to try something new. While training from puppyhood or kittenhood is best, those older dogs (and cats) can certainly learn new tricks.
Have you ever taught your dog or cat a trick? Yes, of course you have. We do this every time we need to change something in our house and still have it work for our furry friends. For example, when a new baby comes into a household, we teach our pets not to sleep in the crib and we also teach them that it is okay if the baby touches their toys. Dogs and cats are very clever and learn with just a little training. So, let’s go back to talking about brushing those teeth and let’s talk about how you can get started getting your pet to accept brushing with a little patience and consistency. Your veterinary clinic can no doubt set you up with a “how to” document that teaches you how to teach your pet to accept dental care. An example of this would be:
Even if you can’t commit to daily brushing, even doing this a few times per week or on some regular schedule can still benefit your pet. That said, even with daily brushing, we humans still need to have a professional cleaning done on a regular basis to keep our teeth as healthy as possible and so will our pets.
Understanding dental diets
What about those of you whose lives are simply so chaotic right now that tooth brushing is impossible (#thisisme), or if you have a pet who simply will not allow you near their mouth? In these cases, there are other ways to help slow the deposition of plaque and tartar in between professional cleanings.
Certain pet foods contain specific nutrients and unique formulations to help with this. You will often see these diets referred to as “Dental” diets. What this means is that the kibble may be designed such that the action of chewing creates a scrubbing action on the surface of the teeth. These dental diets alter the size and shape of the kibble in addition to the texture of the kibble to allow this to happen. Not all kibbles are created equal.
The best way to think about this is to imagine taking a butter knife and pressing it into a cracker. As you press the knife down, the cracker just crumbles with very little pressure. This is what most kibble is like. Now think about pressing that same butter knife into an apple slice. That apple slice will allow the butter knife to slide further into it before it breaks apart. While that knife is sliding into the apple, imagine that the apple is “cleaning” the surface of the knife. So, in short, a dental diet is more like the apple than the cracker in that each tooth needs to slide deeper into it before it crumbles. This sliding action into a dental kibble creates that scrubbing action on the surface of your pet’s chewing teeth, much the same way that your toothbrush scrubs your teeth.
Some dental diets also contain nutrients which help to minimize calcium from depositing onto the plaque on the surface of the teeth, you may see them listed as things like sodium tripolyphosphate, sodium hexametaphosphate, or sodium pyrophosphate.
Tartar vs. plaque
Basically, tartar is calcified plaque. Plaque is the “fuzzy” feeling you get if you forget to brush your teeth, and tartar happens when calcium attaches to that plaque and hardens it. This calcification can begin within 24-48 hours of the fuzzy plaque deposition! This calcified tartar is what your dental hygienist removes during your annual professional tooth cleaning and it is what your veterinarian removes during your pet’s professional cleaning as well. Dental diets can be a fantastic way to help keep your pet’s teeth cleaner and healthier overall.
Choosing the right dental chew
Okay, so what about all those “dental chews” that I can find in stores, do they work? Well, not all chewing is equal when it comes to dental prevention. Bones or hard chew toys will increase the risk of fracturing (breaking) your pet’s teeth which will actually contribute to dental disease rather than help with it. However, there are some dental chews on the market which have dental claims and are formulated to help support dental health. We need to remember though, dental chews are not calorie free, so choosing the right dental chew for the size of the pet is important as our pets should not be getting more than 10% of their daily calories from a source which is nutritionally unbalanced.
For example, my 10 lb (4.5 kg) mini-Dachshund should only be eating 300 calories per day, so this means that any chews that I offer him should not exceed 30 kcal and it is the only “treat” that he can have that day. Any more than that and I risk unbalancing his nutritionally complete diet or making him overweight. Your vet can help you know how many calories your pet should be getting each day and therefore you can find a chew that will fit into your pet’s calorie needs rather than being “extra” calories that we don’t think about.
Dental health takeaways
So, to round out this meandering thought process about February being Dental Health Awareness month I have a couple of key takeaways for you.
- Healthy teeth contribute to healthy pets
- We should think about dental care year round
- There are multiple ways to help keep your pet’s teeth and gums healthy
- Ask your vet about your pet’s dental health and don’t just wait until February to ask them
Dr. Juanita currently works as a Scientific Communications Veterinarian with Royal Canin Canada. A career-long educator, she relishes teaching both the home-dwelling humans who are owned by dogs and cats, as well as the veterinary professionals that keep the animal masters healthy. Much like the cat that came back, after several years in private, small animal practice she returned to her alma mater, the Atlantic Veterinary College as a clinical faculty member. In 2010, Juanita transitioned to teaching in Industry. She now shares healthful, practical, and accessible pet nutrition recommendations with all who serve the pet masters. Juanita is currently owned by an imperious mini, wirehaired Dachshund as well as an alien overlord that masquerades as a cat.
Thank you for looking after these animals
Thank you for looking after these animals — I would love to have them all in my house!