The day I rescued my Doberman, Jack, I made sure the first stop on our way home was at my vet's office, mostly to take care of that little problem of the "family jewels," but also to have his general health evaluated.
When I picked him up the next day, he looked wary and worn out, but at least a little cleaner ("He told us in no uncertain terms that he most certainly did NOT need a full bath"). I was relieved to hear that, except for his low body weight, he was healthy.
"His teeth are surprisingly clean," my vet told me. "You can keep them that way by using one of those toothbrushes that slips on your finger, and you can brush him several times a week."
Jack sat stiffly eyeing us, huge mouth panting, as I stared back at the vet, waiting for the punchline. Apparently there wasn't one.
I raised one eyebrow.
"Uh huh," I said. Like THAT was going to happen.
Although now, nearly five years later, I still hesitate to stick my fingers in that massive mouth, I do periodically lift up Jack's lip flaps, as I do with all my animals, to check his pearly whites.
It's part of taking good care of them.
As with humans, regular dental care is important to your pet's health. And because February is Pet Dental Health Month, I recently met with Heidi Lewis, a registered veterinary technician in Lawrence, to learn more about cat and dog dental hygiene.
It turns out that "oral disease is the most frequently diagnosed health problem for pets." In fact, by age 3, an astonishing 70 percent of cats and 80 percent of dogs show signs of oral disease.
"The younger you start your pet with dental care, the better off your pet will be," Lewis tells her patients. "Your dog or cat will stay healthy longer."
Dental problems start in animals much as they do in people. Saliva and food mix with natural bacteria in the mouth and settle in between the gums and the teeth, causing plaque formation. Further bacteria in the plaque create calcium salts that turn the plaque to tartar.
In short order, tartar can lead to the painful gum inflammation gingivitis, which can be reversed with dental cleaning. If left untreated, however, the build-up becomes the even more painful periodontal disease, an irreversible condition that destroys the soft gum tissue and even the underlying bone.
While most animals can adjust fairly well to tooth loss, should the situation become that bad, the bacteria in their mouths can cause much more serious health problems. By entering the bloodstream, bacteria can stress the liver and kidneys, which filter out poisons, and it can infect the heart muscle.
Just as some humans seem luckier than others in avoiding dental problems, some dogs and cats seem less susceptible. Lewis notes, though, that certain breeds of animals have a greater tendency toward these problems. Abyssinian cats, for example, show a history of tooth and gum disease, as do many small dogs - a breeding problem in which their comparatively large teeth lie close together in their smaller mouths, creating tight spaces for food and bacteria to lodge.
Lewis recommends teaching your young pet early on to tolerate a finger brush or small pet toothbrush and commercial enzymatic toothpaste (don't use your own favorite; human toothpaste can upset your pet's stomach). These brushings, done two or three times a week, should be supplemented by professional cleaning every few years starting around age 3. How often you take in your pet depends on how quickly the tartar builds up.
Many vets start their patients on an antibiotic a few days before the cleaning, to help fight infection from the bacteria that will be loosened by the procedure. Your vet will scale the tartar from the teeth both above and below the gum line, then polish the teeth to make it harder for plaque to form. Flushing the mouth with an antiseptic then kills any bacteria that may have been loosened and protects irritated gums. This may be followed by fluoride treatment to strengthen the tooth enamel.
Between visits to the vet, owners can help keep their pets' teeth clean by providing hard foods, special dental chews, pressed rawhides or crunchy treats to chew on. "Things like cow hooves should be avoided," Lewis warns. "Chew treats that hard can lead to stress fractures in back teeth, especially for larger dogs."
For animals with recurring tooth problems, Lewis says, "Talk to your vet. He or she can recommend the best prescription foods for helping keep teeth clean."
What about the cost of regular treatments? It's a deal, compared with the illnesses your pets could face if their teeth are left to fate.