DENTAL CARE: More than a toothbrush and toothpaste

“Taking care of your dog’s teeth is as important as looking after your own. It is critical for your pet’s overall health to have proper dental care from a young age,” says Dr Stephen Smith, a senior partner at TAH.

“Without proper dental care, your dog can suffer from inflammation of the gums (gingivitis) and the tissue surrounding the teeth (periodontitis). It is extremely painful and can be associated with serious health issues, ranging from tooth root abscesses and tooth loss to bacterial infection of the heart, liver, and kidneys,” explains Dr Smith.

“Unfortunately, dental disease is largely unrecognised by owners and yet it is one of the most commonly detected problems of pets visiting TAH. This stresses the need for proper dental care, from a young age, as dental disease can seriously impact a pet’s health,” he adds.

In general, teeth health can be divided into:

  • Grade 1: These cases have mild to moderate tartar build-up and are the ideal candidates for dental treatment in our clinics as they are easy, reasonably priced and the best option for owner and pet.
  • Grade 2: These are the cases where it’s obvious we will have 1-2 surgical extractions, for example, a tooth root abscess, a fractured tooth with root pulp exposed (fractured teeth with just enamel and dentin exposed do not need extracting, sometimes we only need to smooth the surface a bit), or moderate to severe tartar build-up with the potential for extractions.
  • Grade 3: This stage is characterised by poor breath and the pet displaying signs of lethargy

“Brushing the teeth removes plaque but not tartar, so if your pet’s teeth do have tartar, your vet will have to remove it with a professional cleaning and polishing, usually accomplished under anaesthesia. The first choice will definitely be to start with dental care early so that tartar is minimised or prevented,” says Dr Smith.

Signs of Dental Disease

In addition to brushing your pet’s teeth regularly, it is very important to go for annual health check-ups, as your vet will be able to spot any problems and can assess the dog’s dental health and advise accordingly. Signs to look out for when you suspect dental disease include:

  • Yellow and brown tartar deposits on the gum line.
  • Pain can cause behaviour change e.g. more snappy, quieter and not wanting to exercise as
  • Changes in eating habits e.g. chewing on one side of the mouth, dropping food and not
  • chewing favourite toy.
  • Rubbing and or pawing face.
  • Pet having difficulty eating.
  • Halitosis or bad breath.
  • Inflamed, red and/or bleeding gums.
  • Tumours in the gums.
  • Cysts under the gums.
  • Loose teeth.
  • Swollen and bleeding gums.
  • Cats may exhibit increased drooling.
  • Reluctance to play with favourite toys.
  • Failure to groom themselves.

Brushing your pet’s teeth

Regular brushing, a good diet and the occasional check-up are crucial to ensure good dental health for your pet, as well as a fresh breath. Brushing will be easier if you begin while your pet is still young, as he or she will get used to it. “Start by using your finger with pet toothpaste – never use human toothpaste – and work around the pet’s mouth in a circular motion, to get the pet used to the taste of the toothpaste. Then you can introduce a toothbrush (preferably the pet toothbrushes) and brush the teeth preferably once a day,” advises Dr Smith. “Even older pets can be trained to accept having their teeth brushed by introducing the activity gradually and making the experience positive for your pet.”

Find a comfortable place, like your lap or a favourite resting spot for you and your pet tosit during the toothbrushing session.

  • Use a specially designed pet toothbrush or a recommended alternative.
  • Never use human toothpaste. Instead, use pet toothpaste, such as Pet Dent.
  • Before using a brush or paste, teach your pet that toothbrushing can be fun by first getting him used to having your fingers in his mouth. Dip your finger into something your pet likes,
  • such as soft food or peanut butter.
  • When your pet seems comfortable having your finger in his mouth, apply a small amount of toothpaste to your fingertip.
  • Once your pet tolerates the feeling of your finger and the toothpaste, you can graduate to a soft pet toothbrush.
  • Teach your pet that he or she will be rewarded once he/she gets his/her teeth brushed.

Dental Prophylaxis

Besides regular brushing, a dental prophylaxis (procedure performed under general anaesthesia where the veterinarian examines and cleans the teeth) is needed on an annual basis, also to assess the pet’s overall dental and mouth health.

  • The veterinarian will conduct a pre-anaesthetic physical examination to minimise risk and may advise blood tests to confirm the pet’s health before the procedure.
  • In elderly pets that have underlying medical problems, placing a drip is frequently desirable.
  • After inducing anaesthesia, an airway tube is placed in the pet’s mouth, extending to the airways, to prevent saliva, water, plaque and tartar from running into the lungs.
  • Pets’ teeth are thoroughly cleaned and descaled with an ultrasonic scaler to remove plaque and tartar and then polished to smooth off rough surfaces.
  • Pets with teeth that require extraction are given local anaesthesia and the teeth are extracted.
  • If performed before significant disease is present, these procedures last less than 30 minutes and carry very little risk for your pet.
  • If dental disease is advanced, the procedure can be very long and complicated, emphasising the need for early intervention.

“We have experienced that pets easily adapt to several teeth removed at once and actually experience relief from the pain they experienced previously,” says Dr Smith. “In some instances, softer food needs to be given to the pet, but in some, the pet just continues as if nothing has happened.”

A Nutritious Diet

Your veterinary surgeon may recommend the use of special dry food to reduce plaque and tartar build-up, especially if your pet is prone to dental problems. This may mean feeding your pet food with additives that helps keep plaque from hardening, or dried food that help scrub your pet’s teeth as he chews. One such example is the Hill’s Prescription Diet t/d Dental Care, which contains a special fibre matrix with aligned fibres that help the kibble engulf the tooth before it splits, providing a gentle scraping action that helps reduce the build-up of plaque, tartar and stains.

Another aspect to keep in mind is to not give your pet sweets and table scraps as they may also increase plaque and tartar formation.

Additional Products

There are specially formulated treats and products that can reduce tartar and avoid the onset of periodontal disease, like Pet Dent Oral Gel, etc, but note that these will be, in addition to regular toothbrushing, and not instead of it.

Don’t let your pet chew on hard materials like bones or stones, as they can wear down, break teeth and damage gums, which can lead to infection.


“One issue that always comes into question when discussing dental treatment is the costs and clients often do not understand why the costs can be so high. Reasons for this include:

  • Unlike in people, pets’ teeth need to be cleaned under general anaesthetic. The anaesthetic level needs to be closely monitored, the same as with any surgical procedure. This means that we need extra staff to monitor the patient, as well as extra equipment to administer the anaesthetic gas. Obviously, a professional fee for the anaesthesia is also charged.
  • When most of us visit a dentist or oral hygienist, we can’t even see the tartar build-up on our teeth, because we brush our teeth at least twice a day. The condition of our pet’s teeth is generally much worse than this by the time we get to treat their mouths, and this means that it is usually a more difficult situation to try to reverse or treat.
  • Dogs and cats’ teeth are seated much tighter in the bone than humans and to remove a tooth a vet basically needs to perform maxillofacial surgery.

“It is also not always possible to provide a cost estimate beforehand, especially in the severe dental disease cases. Often one discovers other problems once bad tartar build-up has been removed or when an X-ray has been taken,” he adds.

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