Dental disease affects 78% of dogs and 68% of cats over age 3. Periodontal trouble in animals causes the same range of problems that it does in humans: from mild tartar and gingivitis to receding gums; significant inflammation; and, finally, tooth loss, with smaller dogs being more prone to such issues than larger breeds. But it's not just about teeth. "The further the condition progresses, the higher the risk that bacteria will get into the bloodstream through tiny broken blood vessels in the gums, then travel to your pet's organs, leading to cardiac, kidney, or liver disease," says Jeffrey Klausner, DVM, chief medical officer at Banfield Pet Hospital in Portland, OR. Dire though that outcome is, prevention couldn't be easier:
"If you keep your pets' teeth clean, you'll extend their lives by three to five years," says Kate Knutson, DVM, codirector of Pet Crossing Animal Hospital and Dental Clinic in Bloomington, MN.
Whether you have a young Yorkie or a senior Siamese, here are painless ways to make at-home dental care routine.
Get A Baseline
"If your pet already has dental disease and you start a daily brushing regimen, it can be very painful," Dr. Knutson says. Since 70% of the tooth is below the gum-line in animals, start with a trip to the vet. During a dental exam (which should take place annually), your pet will be put under general anesthesia, but don't worry: Risks are small in healthy animals, and the procedure takes only about 20 minutes. Your vet will inspect teeth and gums, remove tartar and plaque, and take x-rays. If any teeth are loose (decay begins at the root) or diseased, they'll be pulled. Once you get the all clear, let the brushing begin!
Timing Is Everything
"Choose a time when your pet is sleepy or has just woken up from a nap," Dr. Knutson says. Before feeding is another good opportunity, so a meal becomes a reward for a successful cleaning.
Using veterinary, species-specific toothpaste is essential. "Human toothpaste has too much fluoride and is toxic for animals," Dr. Knutson says. You'll find animal-friendly flavors, like chicken, mint, and peanut butter, at most pet stores.
While holding or crouching next to your pet, give her a taste of toothpaste. Then gently insert your finger into her mouth and rub the gum tissue. Once you and your dog or cat have this down (which may take a few weeks), introduce a children's soft toothbrush or animal toothbrush. Finger cots--rubber or latex tips that fit on your index finger--can also be just as effective. "No matter what you use, rub away plaque along the outside top and bottom gums for about a minute," Dr. Klausner says.
It's All In The Wrist
The most comfortable position for cleaning the teeth of a small dog or a cat (for both of you) is on your lap, your pet's head facing away from your body. Use your left hand to brush the right side of her mouth and vice versa. "You may want to look while you clean, but you don't have to," Dr. Knutson says. "Feel your way--and remember, since you're brushing only the outside of the teeth, there's no need to pry her mouth open." For a larger dog, face him while he's sitting or standing—here, too, insert your finger or toothbrush into his closed mouth and rub. Afterward, give a reward—a romp with a ball, petting, and praise are all good perks.
When All Else Fails
Try tartar-control kibble and treats. Look for products that contain antimicrobial chlorhexidine, and check with your vet.