According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), some 80% of dogs start showing signs of gum disease by the time they turn 3.
“Veterinarians report that periodontal disease is the most commonly diagnosed health problem in dogs,” says Dr. Larry Corry, former president of the AVMA. “This can lead to painful infections in the mouth, and in severe cases, these infections can spread and become life-threatening.”
Below, doggie dentists weigh in on how to identify and prevent dental problems in dogs.
Dr. Katy Nelson, a veterinarian who is also a member of the Iams Pet Wellness Council, suggests you quickly assess your dog’s mouth by looking at his or her gums: Healthy gums are pink as opposed to red, with no buildup of tartar along the gum line. Additionally, a healthy mouth does not produce horribly bad breath.
Your dog’s vet should do an oral exam at each annual visit, says Nelson. “In older dogs especially, they can get abscesses with no easily visible signs. A thorough assessment may require sedation.”
Dr. Linda DeBowes, a Seattle-based veterinarian, acknowledges that periodontal illness is often a silent disease.
When your veterinarian diagnoses it in your dog, it’s because she has seen plaque, abscesses, loose teeth and lower-jaw fractures, which can occur with chronic dental problems.
“At that point, we need a cleaning to get below the gum line, which requires anesthesia,” says DeBowes. Once under, your dog’s teeth will be cleaned with an ultrasonic scaler or a hand scaler. The veterinarian will look for loose teeth, deep dental pockets, exposed roots or other signs of disease. Some teeth may need to be extracted.
“Once there is disease there, it’s painful and costly to deal with,” says Dr. Trisha Joyce of NYC Veterinary Specialists. “But you can protect your dog’s teeth just like you protect your own, with daily brushing and regular checkups.” She adds: “The only difference between your dental health and your dog’s is that he can’t do it for himself. His owner has to watch out for him.”
Dr. Brook Niemiec, a board-certified veterinary dental specialist in San Diego, suggests beginning a dental routine with your dog as soon as possible and using the following methods for brushing.
Start with a soft toothbrush and flavored toothpaste made for pets. Human toothpaste contains detergents that may cause stomach upset. “I don’t recommend the fingertip brushes for two reasons,” says Niemiec. “The bristles are not very effective at cleaning, and this puts the pet owner’s finger at risk for a bite from even the most placid animal.”
Go slowly and be very positive, using food treats if necessary. Place the brush at a 45-degree angle to the gum line. Brush in a circular motion, with a firm stroke away from the tooth. Try to reach all tooth surfaces, but concentrate on the outside surface.
For puppies, introduce the brush at around 6 months — and be consistent. Animals like routines, so making brushing a habit it will be easier on both of you.
In addition to brushing, foods and chew toys can help maintain your dog’s dental health. Nelson advises looking for a food or treat with a seal of approval from the Veterinary Oral Health Council — a VOHC seal. “If it’s got the seal,” she says, “it’s guaranteed to be a good dental treat or food.”
Look for treats that contain sodium hexametaphosphate (SHMP), which lives in the saliva for up to 12 hours, breaking up plaque. Chew toys help deal with plaque mechanically. While your pet chomps, tartar is broken down.
Finally, keep in mind Nelson’s three D’s of doggie dental health: daily brushing, dentistry and diet. Follow these and your dog can sport pearly whites throughout the rest of its life.
About the Author: Rose Springer is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Rolling Stone. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with the prettiest pup dog in the five boroughs.
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