February is Dental Health Awareness Month

by | Cat Care Dog Care General Pet Care |

Guest blog by Dr Juanita, repost from February 8, 2022 

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  study published in 2021 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. 

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. Though this takes time and commitment, 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, 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. 

So, what if I have a pet who isn’t a puppy or kitten? Secondly, 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. While training from puppyhood or kittenhood is best, those older dogs (and cats) can certainly learn new tricks.  

Dogs and cats are very clever and learn with just a little training. 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. 

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, 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. 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.   

 Your vet can help you know how many calories your pet should be getting each day, which will help you 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.   

  1. Healthy teeth contribute to healthy pets. 
  2. We should think about dental care year-round. 
  3. There are multiple ways to help keep your pet’s teeth and gums healthy. 
  4. Ask your vet about your pet’s dental health and don’t just wait until February to ask them.