Every morning, my two dogs follow me into my tiny bathroom. My little Jack Russell mix, Marshmallow, knows that I’ll clean her face, washing away the brown gunk that stains her eyes. GhostBuster, my gigantic Lab–Golden mix, squeezes in with us so I can clean his ears, check for new hotspots, apply ointments to his itchy skin, and give him the prescription pill that keeps his allergies at bay. When I look into the mirror, I see a pretty good pet parent starting back at me, but when I reach for my toothbrush I feel a pang of guilt. I take good care of my own teeth, but I never brush my dogs’ teeth.
The guilt over my lack of doggy dental hygiene diligence peaked a couple of weeks ago when the email newsletter from my vet’s office told me that February is Pet Dental Month. I can understand why vets have a whole month dedicated to fighting dental disease — they don’t want to be pulling rotten teeth all the time. As someone who spends a lot of time writing about dogs, I’ve personally heard plenty of stories about dental neglect. The topic makes me think of Mervin the Chihuahua, who suffered from extreme dental disease and had to have all his teeth removed, or Old Man Red, a dog who only had one single tooth left at the end of his life.
I also know dental disease can lead to heart disease as mouth bacteria enters a dog’s bloodstream — and yet here I am, not brushing my dogs’ teeth. Let’s examine my excuses, shall we?
I know a lot of dog people. I don’t know a lot of dog people who brush their pup’s teeth every day. The stats back me up: A 2008 survey of vets done by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) and Hill’s Pet Nutrition found only about 10 percent of vet clients report brushing their pet’s teeth on a daily basis (and I bet some of those are fibbers). I’ve found that when I bring up the topic of doggy dental care, people have one of three reactions: A minority say they don’t brush their dog’s teeth as often as they should, others recommend professional teeth cleaning services or chewable products like Greenies, while the third (and largest) group just scoff at the idea that dogs need to have to their teeth brushed. So I know that I’m not the only pet parent around who isn’t brushing — but I also know that wouldn’t be any comfort if one of my dogs needed teeth pulled.
Cleaning Marshmallow’s teeth is a struggle because she seems to think her toothbrush is a tug-of-war toy … but only because I don’t do it enough. Since their adoptions, both of my dogs have proved they can be conditioned to allow things that might not be entirely pleasant for them. It used to be a real fight to get GhostBuster into the tub, but these days he goes straight to the bathroom as soon as we get home from a muddy walk. Marshmallow, too, has gotten used to things — like having me touch her eyes. I know if I used my clicker, some treats, and consistency, both pups could learn to love the toothbrush. I just haven’t tried.
I don’t know anyone whose life isn’t busy. My own days are chock full of stuff. As I write this sentence there’s a cat on my shoulders and a baby strapped to my chest (and in about 10 minutes they’re both going to be crying for food). In the next two hours, I need to walk my dogs, vacuum my couch, and hopefully take a shower (if the baby cooperates) before some guests arrive. I probably won’t be brushing anyone’s teeth but my own.
I tell myself that I’m too busy to clean the dogs’ teeth — but that’s a cop-out. I could be doing it if I just made it part of our routine. I could be doing it in the morning before I give GhostBuster his pill, or when I’m grooming him, or when I’m giving him his nighttime pill. I make time for all kinds of other things in my life, so why can’t I seem to make time for this?
This is the lamest excuse of all. For a time, I clung to the hope that I would find a teeth cleaning toy or treat that would work for my dogs — but the combination of GhostBuster’s allergies and Marshmallow’s power chewing have left me searching in vain. My big boy is allergic to many common ingredients in the edible treats, chews, and foods that are worthy of the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s seal of approval, and my little girl is a power chewer who would destroy most toys marketed as teeth cleaners. They do have some durable, allergen-free chew toys that sure are fun, but if I’m being real with myself, I can admit that tossing Marshy a toy isn’t the same as brushing her teeth.
When I stand back and examine my excuses, they just don’t hold up. In celebration of Pet Dental Month, I’m revising my New Year’s resolution. Instead of focusing on quitting sugar (because, who was I kidding), I’m going to spend the rest of 2016 trying to take better care of my dogs’ teeth. I’m not going to pretend that I’m gonna become a daily brusher overnight, but maybe the pups and I can start with a once-a-week ritual and go from there. We might also have to switch to one of those rubber finger brushes to put an end to Marshy’s games of toothbrush tug-of-war.
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About the Author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but the addition of a second cat, Specter, and the dog duo of GhostBuster and Marshmallow make her fur family complete. Sixteen paws is definitely enough. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook, and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google+.