Our furry family members are like us in so many ways—including the payoff we all get from healthy habits. Take oral care: Just as with people, it’s been found to have a far-reaching impact on pet wellness. “Untreated dental disease can lead to tooth loss, oral pain, and serious bacterial illnesses of the heart, liver, and kidneys,” says Daniel T. Carmichael, a board-certified veterinary dental specialist with the Veterinary Medical Center of Long Island, in West Islip, New York. “Taking care of pets’ teeth is the number-one thing you can do to promote a better quality of life, and a longer one.” Since studies show that most dogs and cats have some evidence of dental disease by age 3, it’s vital to be vigilant.
1. Brush Up
“The gold standard is every day, or at least every other day,” says Carmichael, who notes that research has found anything less frequent to be ineffective in preventing disease. (To make daily cleaning manageable, add it to a routine you already have, such as wiping off your dog’s paws after he comes inside or washing his bowl.) If your pet resists at first, “put a little peanut butter for a dog, or tuna juice for a cat, on your finger, and lift up his lips and touch his teeth,” Carmichael says. Move on to gently scrubbing tools like baking-soda wipes, gauze pads, or finger cots, then to a soft toothbrush—the human kind is fine—and a pet-formulated tartar-and-plaque clearing toothpaste. (Never use human pastes, which often have ingredients that are toxic in animals.) When brushing, rub the fronts of the teeth and along the gumline in small circles. Look for teeth covered in food residue or tartar, red and swollen gums, or particularly foul-smelling breath. In general, keep an eye out for more serious symptoms such as loss of appetite, sluggishness, or lack of grooming (in cats); and excessive drooling, licking of front teeth, or favoring a side of the mouth while eating (in dogs)—all red flags requiring a vet’s attention.
2. Get ’Em Chomping
Put those animal instincts to use—chewing on the right stuff can be almost as effective as brushing in reducing tartar and plaque. The Veterinary Oral Health Council lists approved chew toys, treats, and enhanced foods at vohc.org. Some products, such as Greenies, Kirkland, and TropiClean chews, freshen breath, too.
3. Visit the Vet
“Dogs and cats should have their oral health evaluated annually, as part of a routine checkup,” says Gary Richter, an integrative veterinarian and owner of Holistic Veterinary Care, in Oakland, California. If that turns up anything of concern, the vet may perform a more thorough examination, along with a deep cleaning that will have Fang smiling again in a flash.