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Dr. Barchas,

I enjoyed reading your article regarding being a better dog owner in 2013. My beloved Rita, a 16-year-old Beagle/Terrier/Chihuahua mix, has teeth that, so far, are in decent shape, but I know dental issues are probably on the way.

Am I too late to begin a teeth-brushing regimen with Rita? Or does every brushing count, even at 16?

Thanks,

Chris

I’m impressed that Rita’s teeth are in such good shape at her advanced age. A large number of older dogs suffer from profound dental disease.

I am a huge proponent of tooth brushing in dogs. I firmly believe that it is the simplest thing that almost nobody does to help promote health, well-being, and longevity in dogs. To this day, I still suffer occasional ridicule from people for brushing my pal Buster’s teeth. However, his perfectly healthy mouth (at 7 1/2 years old) is a very convincing argument in favor of doing the chore daily.

Tooth brushing works because it physically eliminates bacteria and food particles from the teeth. Without tooth brushing, food particles adhere to the teeth. Bacteria feed on these particles, and produce a byproduct called calculus (also known as tartar). As the bacteria proliferate, the infection spreads into the gums and the structures that support the teeth.

Dental disease causes pain, tooth loss, bad breath (because bacteria have a foul odor), and chronic inflammation in the mouth. It may contribute to a host of other problems, including heart valve infections, diabetes, a malodorous hair coat, and possibly some types of cancer.

Tooth brushing interrupts the process, and does not allow the infection to get going. However, tooth brushing is only effective as a preventative. Tooth brushing cannot eliminate significant pre-existing dental disease, which requires general anesthesia for scaling, root planing, imaging, and probing.

It is never too late to start brushing a dog’s teeth, as long as the teeth are healthy. Chris, it sounds like Rita’s teeth are in good shape. However, I’d recommend that you have your vet confirm it first. If any teeth are significantly diseased or infected, then tooth brushing could be painful or could, in theory, contribute to a bacterial infection spreading into the blood stream. If the vet gives Rita a clean bill of dental health, then go ahead and brush her teeth.

Dental health is especially important for older dogs because they are poorer anesthetic candidates. Tooth brushing may prevent generalized dental disease, dental abscesses, and other dental emergencies that would require anesthesia for treatment.

Chris, I commend you for your dedication to Rita.

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