Is there any reason to try and put a toothbrush into a snarling, struggling cat's mouth or to brush a rambunctious puppy's teeth?" You hear it on television several times each day, your dentist tells you during every visit, and your mother reminded you twice per day your entire childhood. You are bombarded with the message that if you brush your teeth you will have whiter teeth, sweeter breath, and healthier gums. Everyone knows it, everyone believes it, and hopefully everyone brushes their teeth routinely and has check-ups at least twice per year.

But what about your pets? Is there any reason to try and put a toothbrush into a snarling, struggling cat's mouth or to brush a rambunctious puppy's teeth? After all, pets are not trying to impress others with their white teeth, they don't floss, and they really don't care if their breath smells nice or not. They are just as happy to leave well enough alone and for you to keep your hands and the toothbrush out of their mouths. It seems silly to fight with your pets to brush their teeth. You run the risk of getting bitten or scratched and you have to teach the animals to allow you to brush their teeth and handle their mouths. Besides, no one brushes a wolf's teeth or a tiger's teeth!

So should you brush your pets' teeth? The answer is absolutely, yes! Dogs and cats are not wolves or tigers and it is not silly to brush an animal's teeth. As a matter of fact, veterinarians advise daily brushing of pets' teeth. Daily brushing is an important part of any pet's "well care". It is preventive medicine, which means it will help prevent diseases before they can occur. Proper dental care will prevent bacteria from thriving and creating the plaque and tartar that lead to bad breath, tooth decay, and gun disease. Daily brushing will help prevent periodontal disease, which can lead to tooth loss. Good home dental care will help prevent infections in the mouth that can lead to liver, kidney, and heart disease in our pets. And as you brush, you will also be examining your pet's mouth, so you will be able to spot any abnormal changes at an early, treatable stage. If you take good care of your pet's mouth, gums, and teeth, you can help your pet have healthy teeth for its entire life and help prevent many common diseases.

Dental disease, tooth loss, and gingivitis are not just seen in older animals. They are problems in pets of all ages. Almost all dogs older than 4 years of age have gum or tooth disease. Many dogs have gum disease by the time they are one or two years of age. Prevention of tooth and gum problems can help dogs lead longer, healthier lives by decreasing the bacteria that lead to changes, such as heart disease, that we used to think were a normal part of aging in our pets. In addition, as advances in vaccination, nutrition, and general health care allow more of our pets to live longer, it becomes even more critical to keep their teeth and gums healthy. The animals need to have healthy teeth for their entire lives, not just a few, short years.

At-home dental care requires toothbrushes and pastes or rinse made specifically for pets. Do not purchase products made for humans. Toothpaste for people does not taste good to our pets, has unneeded ingredients, and can cause stomach upsets. People's toothbrushes are not shaped or angled to fit in a pet's mouth and the bristles are too hard. Stick with products made for and flavored for pets. Many owners prefer small finger brushes that fit over one finger; some prefer longer-handled brushes. Use the brush that you feel the most comfortable with and the cleaning product that your pet accepts the most easily.

All pets can learn to accept daily brushing. The key to training a pet is to use patience, stay calm, and offer a lot of positive praise and treats for a job well done. This way the pet will start to look forward to the procedure. Remember that it is okay to take several weeks to train your pet. After all, you will be brushing for a lifetime, so the training can take a few months. To begin, have the pet sit in the same place every day and gently touch its face and mouth. When this procedure is well tolerated, use just your fingers and run them over your pet's teeth, under the lips. When the pet accepts this process without a fuss, switch to a piece of dampened gauze or a soft, wet washcloth. Repeat the gentle washing of the outer surfaces of the teeth for at least a few weeks, and then switch to the toothbrush or finger brush. Start with only water on the brush, or a flavored broth that the pet will accept. Then switch to a flavored toothpaste or product. Most pets are totally acclimated to tooth brushing within 4-8 weeks.

In addition to daily brushing, chewing helps to keep your pet's teeth clean. Just about anything your pet chews can be helpful, but some items are better than others. Dry diets can help keep teeth clean if your pet actually chews the food (many do not). Biscuits are also helpful and tend to be well chewed, but can add unwanted calories. Bones can help remove tartar, but can also break teeth. Rawhides, nylon bones, special "plaque attackers", and other toys will help maintain a healthy mouth and teeth. These are the safest chewing choices for most pets. Just make sure to monitor animals when they are chewing rawhides or other toys to avoid accidents.

Even with daily brushing and chew toys, pets will still need their teeth professionally cleaned by your veterinarian. This procedure, called dental prophylaxis, is done while the pet is under anesthesia. Just as when you get your teeth cleaned, the pet's teeth surfaces are scaled, plaque and tartar are removed from below the gum line, and the teeth are polished and treated with fluoride. Radiographs may be taken to look for hidden problems. This procedure may need to be done as often as every six months (just like in people), even with daily home care of your pet's teeth.

Daily care of your pets' teeth is time consuming. But this is time well-spent. Pets that have their teeth brushed have less tooth loss and infection than those that do not. Pets that have their teeth brushed suffer from less kidney, liver, and heart disease than those that do not. Pets that have their teeth brushed eat better, feel better, and are happier than those that do not. It is time to start brushing your pets' teeth, today.
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