Creature Comforts

You kiss your momma with that mouth?

Kevin, “smiling” for the camera. Dental care is as important for pets as it is for their humans.

Try this little sociology experiment: stop brushing your teeth for a week. No dental rinses, no flossing, no chewing gum, no Waterpik. No dental care, whatsoever. After that week is up, survey family members, coworkers and random people you see on the street about something you think is important. Any old question you’re passionate about will do. Speak slowly, clearly and deliberately so they understand well, stand close and make good eye contact to be sure they’re paying attention. Wait — are you having difficulty finding people to talk to you? They keep taking a step backward whenever you try to get closer? Huh, wonder what that’s about? One word: halitosis. It’s the clinical term for “bad breath.” And after only one week of poor dental hygiene, most people would be afflicted with severe halitosis as well as marked loneliness.

Not brushing my teeth for just one day — even HALF a day — leaves me feeling like there’s an actual skin on my teeth — furry, green skin. I have a hard time imagining not caring for my teeth on a daily basis, and I know I’m not alone. Most people have an ingrained habit of brushing their teeth a minimum of twice a day, and some of us do all the good stuff like flossing and rinsing, too. My husband is so compulsive about brushing his teeth, he once broke a toothbrush. Seriously snapped it at the middle of the handle while brushing. I do NOT recommend this if you LIKE having enamel on your teeth.

Those who are not so into oral hygiene tend to stand out for one reason or another. It’s difficult not to notice a mouth full of rotten, brown, broken teeth when someone is talking to you. Missing teeth, too, are, well, hard to miss. But, it’s quite common for animals to have positively awful mouths, and yet their owners are completely unaware. Since most pets don’t greet us with toothy grins or carry on actual conversations with us, most folks are unlikely to notice some of the stuff happening in their pets’ mouths until things get really serious.

“What do you mean his teeth are bad?!” owners say in veterinary exam rooms everywhere. “He just had a dental cleaning!” And by “just” they typically mean a year or more in the past. I refer back to my initial point: without daily brushing, what kind of shape would your teeth be in after, say, six months or a year? Ick.

“But he gets Greenies, Milkbones, Dentastix!” Yup, and while he’s very happy to receive them, they’re not brushing his teeth. Also, most of these snacks are very large and contain lots of calories, which for our weight-challenged patients, is not helpful. Dental diets? Some are pretty good, but most are no different from regular kibble. Really, nothing — no dental rinses or supplements, chew toys, treats or foods are a substitute for brushing. Want a low-calorie preventative maintenance plan for animal oral hygiene? Brushing the teeth. A minute a day — 30 seconds of gentle brushing with a dog/cat toothpaste (NO PEOPLE TOOTHPASTE!) on either side of the mouth, focusing at the place where the gums and teeth meet, once a day, every day. It helps to hold the mouth closed while you’re working, to avoid the animal chewing on the brush. Focus on the outside surfaces of the teeth, which is where most of the gingivitis and tartar accumulations develop.

I recommend using a finger brush (a soft plastic brush that fits over the index finger) for folks just starting out. This is easier to handle, and also is less threatening to the animal than coming at their faces with a toothbrush when they’re just learning. Once you both get good at it, you can graduate to a soft toothbrush. And don’t expect to accomplish the whole minute on the first try. Gradually work up to longer brushing times.

For many pet owners, this is no easy task. Some pets get downright ornery when people mess with them, much less attempt to do something like brush their teeth. For most, though, it’s more about the difficulty of just fitting it into the daily routine, than it is about the pet’s objections. Eventually, as dental disease progresses, a professional dental cleaning will be recommended.

Have you heard the commercials for the local dentist advertising “sedation dentistry” for folks who are too anxious to sit in the dentist’s chair for their own dental work? Well, a professional dental cleaning for a dog or cat is kind of like that. Anesthesia enables us to look in every nook and cranny in pets’ mouths, find and treat diseased teeth and gums, take biopsy samples of masses, repair damage, extract diseased teeth and polish the good teeth to sparkling when we’re all done — all without the animal stressing or feeling any discomfort. While anesthesia is scary to some pet owners, it is the only way to do a dentistry on an animal correctly and thoroughly.

I’ll close with this helpful (yet incomplete) list: Your pet might need a dental if:

1. His teeth seem to have disappeared, having been replaced with greenish-yellow concrete nubs.

2. He suddenly won’t let anyone touch his face. When someone tries, he bites them (which is new) and leaves teeth behind (also new.)

3. He’s recently started drooling. And he’s a cat.

4. He’s sitting around making weird slurping sounds and repetitive licking motions with his tongue in his mouth.

5. His face is suddenly swollen on one side right under his eye.

6. He seems hungry, but won’t eat his food. He will, however, accept any other foods, as long as they are soft.

7. He smells. He smells bad. Bad, bad, bad. Road kill in summer, bad.

8. He is a cat and has stopped grooming himself, and his coat is looking dull and matted.

9. His gums are tomato red.

10. When he pants, flowers wilt and die, and you need to roll down the car windows. He yawns and you think you see and hear flies buzzing around his face.

Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital. Her column is published every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section. She can be reached at