January 30, 2006
Pet Dental Care Begins at
By Kim Marie Labak
February is National Pet Dental Health Month, and a great time
to start home dental care for your pet. Dental health is
important for overall health. Combined with the dental component
of your pet's annual wellness examination, a home dental care
regimen can prevent pain and expense in the long run.
Brushing your pet's teeth may sound like a tiresome task,
but Dr. Bill Krug, a resident in veterinary dentistry and oral
surgery at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching
Hospital, says, "Please try it. Think about how you'd
feel if you went one or two days without brushing your teeth; now
think about what your teeth would be like after eight or nine
years without cleaning."
Like humans, pets can get bacterial and tartar buildup on
their teeth, leading to deep gum disease, or periodontitis. The
gums and underlying bone recede as a consequence of the untreated
infection, resulting in loose, painful teeth, inflamed gums, and
"We see a lot of cases of severe damage and discomfort
that could be prevented with regular dental hygiene," says
Dr. Krug. If the task of tooth brushing seems daunting at first,
he suggests taking "baby steps" toward a dental hygiene
Start gradually by holding your pet and looking into its
mouth. (Of course, if you think you may get bitten, don't put
yourself in danger, and find an alternative to brushing.) Lift
the lips so you can examine the teeth. As your pet gets more
comfortable with this, try putting some veterinary toothpaste on
your finger and rubbing it on the teeth.
Some pets may find this a pleasant experience, since most
veterinary toothpastes are flavored, and they may like the
petting and attention. Many veterinary toothpastes fight bacteria
and tartar by activating antibacterial salivary enzymes.
After your pet gets used to your rubbing its teeth and gums,
you can try wrapping gauze around your finger or using a soft
rubber finger brush on your index finger. This can help get more
food debris off the teeth. With small strides like these, Dr.
Krug says, your pet may let you brush its teeth with a regular
pet toothbrush within a few weeks.
Brushing is the most effective way of removing food debris,
thus minimizing bacterial growth and tartar formation. It takes a
good deal of patience and persistence, but the few minutes a day
you invest can prevent future discomfort, disease, and
Dental disease is painful and can become costly to treat;
untreated, it can lead to systemic problems such as kidney,
liver, and respiratory infection as bacteria travel from the
mouth through the bloodstream. Tooth and gum infections can
weaken the facial bones and mandible, predisposing your pet to
mandibular fractures and eye infections.
Although Dr. Krug insists that brushing is the best preventive
measure against dental disease, he acknowledges that some pets
just won't stand for it. For those pets, alternatives such as
rinses, chew toys, and special diets can help. Dental rinses that
you can add to your pet's drinking water can help reduce
bacterial and tartar buildup.
Chew toys, such as rope bones, nylon bones, and crocheted
"mice," can help scrape food debris off teeth. Rawhide
chews, too, can help clean teeth, but Dr. Krug advises against
cow bones and pig hooves available in some pet stores, since they
are hard enough to cause painful tooth fractures. Special dental
chews, such as C.E.T. treats for dogs and cats, are infused with
enzymes that help kill bacteria.
More brands of foods now offer "dental" formulas,
and Dr. Krug explains that the strategy behind some of these
diets is a larger size kibble that can scrape the teeth clean as
the pet bites into the food.
Good dental care begins at home and can save pain and expense
in the long run. For more information about a home dental care
regimen, contact your local veterinarian or visit the Web site of
the American Veterinary Dental College at
Veterinary Extension/Office of Public Engagement
University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine
Source: Dr. Bill Krug
An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at