Good dental routine just as important for your dog
I DIDN'T set out to be a dentist, but when I qualified as a vet, I soon discovered that dentistry was a significant part of my daily work load. Every day in most busy vet practices, the list of operations and procedures includes animals that have been admitted because they need attention to their teeth. Dental disease is common in pets.
Whenever I work on a dog with a mouth full of diseased, rotting teeth, I can't help reflecting that this type of problem can be prevented. Daily tooth brushing may be a challenge to pet owners, but if it's done, dogs can have healthy mouths, right into their old age.
Conveniently, many people like to believe that dogs' teeth are somehow "self cleaning", and that by chewing on "natural" foodstuffs, their teeth can remain immaculately clean and healthy. Unfortunately, this is not true. Studies of African Wild Dogs have shown that even when wild dogs eat freshly killed prey every day, they suffer from the same types of dental disease as our pets.
There is nothing new about the problem, and it's not something that is caused by modern pet foods. Just as in humans, dental disease is part of the basic biology of the mouth. Dogs suffer from periodontal disease in exactly the same way as we do.
After a meal, traces of food dissolved in saliva form an invisible sticky coating which covers the teeth: this is called plaque. Plaque is similar to wet paint, and it's easy to remove. If the teeth are brushed, the plaque is swept away, like wiping wet paint off a shiny surface.
If the teeth are not brushed, and the plaque is left on the teeth, it interacts with minerals in the saliva to form a hard, brown substance called tartar: this is like paint that has dried. Tartar cannot be removed by brushing: it needs to be physically chipped away, by a vet using metal instruments or an ultrasonic descaler. If it is not removed, layer upon layer of tartar forms, creating a thick brown hard coating on the teeth. As this gathers, it pushes against the gums, causing them to become inflamed, and bacterial infection sets in.
This produces a foul smell, and the multiplying bacteria cause more damage to the gums, causing them to recede and exposing the tooth roots. Infection then gets into the tooth sockets, and the teeth loosen or even fall out.
It isn't just the loose teeth and smelly breath that are a problem: dental disease can affect a pet's general health. Surveys have demonstrated that pets with good dental health live for longer than animals with untreated dental disease.
Periodontal disease is common in older pets: around 80% of dogs over the age of three have it, despite the fact that around 90% of owners think that their pets' teeth are perfect. Most people don't look at their pets' teeth, and they don't realise that a problem is brewing.
The most important fact that owners need to know about periodontal disease is that it is completely preventable. If time is taken to brush a pet's teeth every day, plaque is removed before it has a chance to harden into tartar. The problem is nipped in the bud, and the teeth stay clean and healthy.
Most people don't bother to brush their pets' teeth, but from time to time, I meet owners of elderly dogs with perfect teeth. When I ask them about their daily routine, they'll often tell me, with a self-congratulatory smile, that they have brushed their pet's teeth since puppyhood. Daily tooth brushing really does work.
The best answer to this challenge is to start into a good routine as soon as you get a puppy. Every day, before you give your pup his supper, take a minute to handle his mouth. Push back his lip with your fingers, and look at the teeth. Then give him his food. He will soon learn that this is a harmless, painless routine. He's rewarded for accepting this by having his supper every day, so it will become part of an enjoyable stage of his day.
Once he happily accepts this daily examination of his mouth, you can start to put a blob of doggy toothpaste on your finger. This tastes like chicken or meat, and your pup should enjoy the taste. When you've been doing this for a few days, you can move to the next stage, which is to take out the toothbrush.
Start with the front teeth, by lifting his upper lip. Use a circular or up-and-down motion, just as in humans. Imagine that you are scrubbing off that invisible plaque. Once he is happy with the daily brushing of the front teeth, move to the back ones. Tooth brushing will soon become an automatic part of your routine, like brushing your own teeth.
It is more difficult with older pets, but they can still be trained to accept tooth brushing if you are patient. If you really cannot manage to do it, then commercial dental chews are the next best option.
If you struggle with brushing your dog's teeth, ask your local vet or vet nurse. We are not called "dentists", but in the animal world, that's exactly what we are.
Vets across Ireland are offering free dental checks during the month of November. For a list of participating vet clinics, visit Pedigree Ireland on Facebook