Cleaning dog teeth is not as hard as you think. Cats can also be more co-operative than you expect! So why would you want to brush your pet’s teeth?

Periodontal disease is why we clean pets’ teeth 

Periodontal disease is caused by plaque, a bacterial biofilm that adheres to the tooth surface (it is one of the only places you can actually see colonies of bacteria on your body!). If allowed to build up, plaque starts to accumulate and extend under the gumline, resulting in gingivitis and, over time, destruction of the ligaments and bone supporting the teeth (periodontal disease).

Homecare programs are how we maintain oral health 

Home care programs are usually targeted at slowing down plaque accumulation, thus slowing down disease progression. They work best on a pain free and healthy mouth – one with no sore teeth and no plaque or tartar. No home care method will prevent plaque from forming altogether – even humans who brush their teeth twice a day get some buildup of plaque and tartar which needs to be removed by scaling and polishing.

Home care does not replace the need for regular dental examinations and professional cleaning, but it will increase the time period between treatments. Before commencing a home care program, it is recommended that you ask your vet to check for any existing oral problems so these can be addressed up front. This makes home care more effective, and gives you peace of mind that you are not causing more discomfort if your pet has any painful or sensitive areas.

Methods that may be recommended include those that physically remove plaque (such as brushing or chewing) or kill plaque bacteria (chemical rinses, gels or water additives). A combination of methods is most effective, and with a variety of options available, most pets can have a program designed that suits their individual needs and behaviour and fits in with your own lifestyle.

How do we brush pets’ teeth? 

Tooth brushing is the most effective way of physically removing plaque from the teeth – that’s why human dentists recommend we brush twice a day! Spending a few minutes a day caring for your pet’s teeth can improve your pet’s health, improve their breath, make them more comfortable, and save you money on treatment.

If your pet will allow you to brush its teeth daily, you will significantly slow down the accumulation of plaque and, therefore, the discomfort and infection that follows.

Click here for our ten top tips for brushing your pet’s teeth [link to brushing tips in resources]. We also strongly recommend that you take your pet to see your local vet who can detect and treat any painful teeth or gums that might already be present BEFORE you take up the toothbrush.

Other homecare options 

Dogs love to chew! Chewing has an abrasive action that helps remove plaque however it is important to offer something that is safe (not too small, hard or brittle) yet still effective. Cats tend to be are a bit more finicky than dogs, but can be convinced to chew if offered something interesting and tasty!

Raw Bones 

Bones are very popular in Australia and have the benefit of providing enjoyment and boredom relief. However they should be always be used with caution as there are some common complications:

  • Some pets will break their teeth on them, particularly the upper carnassials (large cheek teeth). This can lead to infection of the jawbone and tooth root abscess if left untreated.
  • Bones can cause gastrointestinal obstruction and trauma. Cooked bones should never be fed as they are brittle and prone to splintering. Match the size of the bone to the pet (ask your vet for zadvice if you are unsure) to try and minimise the risk of choking or obstruction.

In fact, the FDA (USA) has recently produced a consumer warning about the risks associated with feeding bones to dogs (click here for more information) [link to FDA announcement about bones in FAQs].

The bottom line is that, while some pets may chew bones for years and never have a problem, others do get significant problems that require urgent veterinary attention. If, despite the risks, you choose to provide bones for your pet, you should supervise your pet and remove any bones if concerned about their chewing behaviour. Softer chewing options that are widely available include special dental diets and a range of chew treats and toys.

Dental Diets 

Although dry foods may help disturb plaque, many are not particularly effective in slowing down periodontal disease as they shatter when bitten, and therefore do not require much actual chewing. However, some pet food companies have now released both canine and feline dental diets which have been scientifically proven to help reduce plaque and/or tartar buildup. These may work by physically cleaning the teeth (they do not fall apart easily when chewed) or by the addition of chemicals that prevent the hardening of plaque to form tartar.

Some foods carry the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal which means they have been independently shown to be effective in reducing plaque and/or tartar accumulation. However, not all companies have sought to use this logo, so just because a product does not display it, this does not mean it is ineffective in slowing down periodontal disease.

Choice of diet may be affected by other health issues, so it is a good idea to get professional advice on which diets are most suitable for your pet – the best place to start is your local vet hospital.

Chew treats and toys 

Other chewy options include specially designed dental chew treats (which may also be impregnated with chemicals that retard plaque growth), rawhides, pigs ears, and chew toys (such as rubber Kong toys). As with bones, careful consideration of size, hardness and brittleness is very important in minimising the risks. Hard toys (including some toy bones) should be avoided as they increase the risk of dental fractures. Tennis balls are very abrasive and can cause excessive tooth wear. As with bones, supervision of your pet while chewing is recommended.

Dental Antiseptics

Antiseptics kill plaque bacteria, and are most effective when combined with a method that physically disrupts the plaque layer to allow them to penetrate properly (this is why dentists don’t recommend we use mouthwash alone as a substitute for brushing our teeth!). They are available in several forms, including rinses, gels, pastes and water additives. Cats in particular may find some of these offensive to their sensitive palates, so ask your local veterinary hospital for advice on which product is best suited to your pet.

Talk to us! 

We can give plenty of advice and would love to hear how you get on with cleaning your cat’s or dog’s teeth. Make a comment below.