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I didn’t know dogs could get dental crowns until it happened to my dog. One day, during Nigel’s annual wellness exam, my veterinarian pointed out a problem in Nigel’s mouth. One of his back molars had broken off, and the pulp of the tooth was exposed. The vet referred me to a veterinary dentist, who fitted Nigel with a shiny gold crown. It became known as “Nigel’s bling,” and it cost me $2,000.
The cost and the trouble could have been avoided if I’d known enough about how to take care of my dog’s teeth. The vet dentist informed me that Nigel had broken his tooth chewing on something hard, most likely a toy. I had no idea this could happen. The best way to keep your dog’s mouth healthy throughout his life is to understand the nature of his teeth at the various life stages.
You’ve probably noticed that puppies have sharp teeth. Just about everyone who has played with a puppy has felt those little needles on the skin. Young puppies sprout their baby teeth a few weeks after birth. By 6 months of age, they have lost them to a set of 42 adult teeth.
Puppyhood is the time to teach your dog to allow his mouth to be handled. This will pay off later when you brush his adult teeth and when your veterinarian examines his mouth. Here are some general principles:
To get your puppy accustomed to having his mouth handled, mess around with it whenever you can. When your puppy is relaxed and resting near you, touch his mouth with your fingers. Lift his lips, and gently rub the gums and teeth. If he resists, put something tasty on your finger, like peanut butter or meat-flavored doggie toothpaste. He will soon come to associate you handling his mouth with something pleasant.
The puppy months are also a time for teething. His gums will be sore from all the tooth eruptions, and his desire to chew will be strong. Provide him with a safe toy to gnaw on. Avoid chew toys that are too hard — they should give a little when your dog bites down on them. If you can’t make a mark in it with your fingernail, don’t give it to your puppy unless you want him to end up with a $2,000 doggie crown like Nigel’s. Hard rubber toys are usually a good choice.
When your dog is fully grown, it’s time to start really taking care of those choppers. I followed my vet’s advice and started brushing Nigel’s teeth. He really didn’t like it, mostly because he just wanted to eat the toothpaste — not have it rubbed on his teeth.
Also, it’s awkward to get a toothbrush into a dog’s mouth. Nigel’s long muzzle meant I had to reach way back there to get to his molars. Still, I did it as often as I could. Brushing his teeth meant keeping tartar buildup to a minimum, which meant less need for deep cleaning by a vet.
Here are some more tips:
Brush your adult dog’s teeth every day if possible. That can be tough if you have a busy schedule, so do it as often as you can (at least every other day at minimum). You can use a toothbrush designed for dogs, a rubber tooth-brushing cap that slips over your finger, or just a swatch of gauze wrapped around your fingertip.
Use toothpaste made just for dogs; never use human toothpaste. Ours isn’t made for swallowing, and that’s exactly what a dog will do. Have you ever seen a dog rinse and spit?
Take care when selecting toys for your dog to chew on. Hard objects like bone or solid plastic can break a dog’s teeth. Even something as malleable as a tennis ball can cause damage if your dog obsessively gnaws on it — your dog can literally wear his teeth down. (If you have an adult dog who is an obsessive chewer, find other ways to get out his energy, like runs in the park or a visit to doggie day care, where he where he can play with other dogs.)
One of the most important ways to care for your adult dog’s teeth is to heed your veterinarian’s advice when she recommends a teeth cleaning. Buildup of tartar on your dog’s teeth and gums can result in serious infection if not removed. Regular tooth brushing can keep tartar at bay, but you likely still need to have your dog’s teeth cleaned by a vet at least a few times during his life. Some dogs with naturally bad teeth need annual cleanings.
Just like older humans, senior dogs often have dental issues. If you’ve taken care of your dog’s teeth through the years, he’s less likely to have mouth problems when he’s older. That said, he might still run into trouble with worn-out teeth or infection.
Here are some guidelines:
Continue brushing your older dog’s teeth to help keep the amount of tartar buildup to a minimum. Check his gums regularly, and look for signs of redness or swelling.
Don’t ignore bad breath, either. It’s not normal for an older dog (or any dog) to have foul breath. If things don’t smell right, make an appointment with your veterinarian.
Regular vet exams are especially important when your dog is up in years. Older dogs are more prone to tooth loss and infection, and it’s vital that your vet have the opportunity to look into your dog’s mouth to see what’s going on.
Choose softer toys for your older dog to help protect his aging teeth. Although many senior dogs outgrow the need to chew, some continue this habit well into their golden years.
Keeping your dog’s mouth in good shape is crucial to his overall health. A dog with healthy teeth and gums is a happy dog!
Read more about dental care for dogs:
About the author: An award-winning professional writer and editor, Audrey Pavia is a former managing editor of DOG FANCY magazine and former senior editor of the AKC Gazette. She is the author of The Labrador Retriever Handbook (Barrons) and has also written extensively on horses as well as other pets. She shares her home in Norco, California, with a rescue dog named Candy.