February is National Pet Dental Health Month. This is a campaign to boost awareness that pets need dental care, too. Many folks don’t realize that their pet’s dental hygiene is important to overall health.

Do you really need to concern yourself with your pet’s teeth? Doesn’t mother nature naturally take care of such things? Are you telling me that Fido needs to see a doggie dentist?

According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, by the age of three years, eight in 10 dogs and seven in 10 cats will develop gum disease. Gum disease involves the build up of plaque and tartar on the tooth against the gumline causing gingivitis (inflammation of the gums).

Left untreated, this disease can result in pain, loss of teeth and, more seriously, the systemic spread of infection from the mouth to other parts of the body, such as the heart, liver and kidneys.

This spread of infection can be especially dangerous in very old animals, those with heart disease, and any animal receiving steroids for other problems, such as arthritis or allergies.

Signs of periodontal disease include:

  • Bad breath
  • A yellow-brown crust of material (tartar) around the gumline
  • Increased redness at the gumline
  • Pain or bleeding when your pet eats or when its mouth or gums are touched
  • Rubbing or pawing at face and mouth

If your pet shows any of these signs, a visit to your veterinarian is in order. If periodontal disease is diagnosed, a dental cleaning procedure and possibly some antibiotics may be prescribed.

A dental cleaning involves general anesthesia – your pet is completely asleep. (Most pets barely tolerate probing in their mouth, much less a cleaning procedure – think about how you feel when you’re at the dentist!).

The tartar buildup is scaled off teeth with an ultrasonic instrument; the teeth are also cleaned above the gumline, where pockets of food particles and bacteria develop. Finally, a polish and fluoride treatment are applied.

There are some things you can do at home to help keep teeth and gums healthier in Spot and Kitty. First and foremost is a good-quality, nutritionally complete diet.

I recommend a dry diet because, among other beneficial reasons, a dry food will clean the teeth some as it is chewed. A dry diet also tends to accumulate less readily against the gumline and other nooks and crannies than does a moist diet.

For dogs, chew toys, such as rawhide bones are very helpful in maintaining healthy teeth and gums. Some special rawhide strips treated with a dentifrice to help prevent plaque formation are available through many veterinarians.

Special toothpastes for brushing are available for the ambitious pet owner!! Do NOT use human toothpaste or mouthwashes, because they are not designed to be swallowed.

Ideally, your pet’s teeth should be brushed daily, but any regimen is better than none. Some animals need this level of care more than others.

During the month of February, many veterinarians nationwide will be offering free dental screening exams for dogs and cats. Call to see if your veterinarian is participating, and schedule an appointment.