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  • My pets don’t brush their teeth every day.  Do yours?  Probably not.

    While the best current advice is for owners to fulfill this task daily for our animals, my guess is few of us do.

    When I went to veterinary school (a really long time ago!), dental prophylaxis was not a major topic of concern. But as the body of medical knowledge increased and more was learned about the repercussions of neglecting oral health, much more emphasis is now given to dental hygiene.

    Veterinarians routinely advise daily tooth brushing, advanced at-home care, and routine hospital cleanings. Why the shift? Just why is dental care so important? Obviously, we don’t brush teeth so dogs have nice white smiles. We perform home care for the same reason humans do – to minimize bacterial buildup on the tooth surface, and to decrease plaque formation.

    Plaque is a combination of bacteria, chemicals from saliva, and food bits, which when not removed, accumulate to form a hard deposit on the tooth surface. Plaque can mineralize into tartar in a scant 36 hours.  Tartar, or calculus, can cut into the gum line, extending to the part of the tooth hidden under the gum.  It can push the gum away from the tooth surface, allowing a pocket to form which accumulates more bacteria, food particles, and debris.  That’s why daily brushing is recommended-to stop the cascade.

    Tooth decay, halitosis (bad breath), then bone loss occurs around a diseased tooth. It happens because the attachment of the tooth to the socket it sits in is lost.

    The rules for good oral health are the same, whether dog, cat, or human. Daily brushing, using a soft brush certainly helps to prevent plaque from becoming tartar. And there are animal-specific toothpastes which are not harmful if swallowed.  Animal pastes don’t form suds like ours do, and are flavored to increase acceptance. Dental rinses, treats, and diets contribute to good oral health too.

    Dental diets, which are veterinary prescription products, act to physically abrade tartar from the tooth surface by virtue of their large size and honeycomb architecture. Dental treats often use chemical means to scrub off plaque, and encourage chewing. The popular Oravet treats are taffy-like which exercise dental ligaments and stimulate salivation, thereby cleansing the mouth and leading to oral vigor. Oravet is also used in a clinic setting after dental prophylaxis.  In this form it is applied as a waxy-like substance which sloughs off bacteria from the tooth surface, taking plaque and other noxious agents with it.  Owners can then continue its use on now clean teeth.

    Because in-hospital dental cleaning must be performed under anesthesia, animals need blood work to ensure their major organs can tolerate sedation.  The frequency with which the procedure is done varies from pet to pet.  Small breed dogs often require yearly or even biannual cleanings whereas larger breed dogs whose teeth are not so crowded may go several years between prophys. Whether animals eat canned or dry food can also influence frequency.

    Oravet, CET, Healthymouth products and many others like them meet the VOHC seal of approval.  Just like the Good Housekeeping Seal which many household items boast, products which satisfy the Veterinary Oral Health Committee’s seal have been subjected to a review by researchers and veterinary dentists and actually do what the manufacturer says they do, ie, make a significant improvement in oral health.  Check out the website www.vohc.org to find a complete list of approved oral health items.

    Neglecting an animal’s oral hygiene has significant impact on his or her overall health.  Bacteria from a diseased mouth can easily spread to other parts of the body.  The valves of the heart are a notorious target for bacterial contamination as are the filtering cells of the kidney.  Owners and veterinarians can and should work together to keep pets healthier through good dental care.