Oral Hygiene for Pets

Pete Wedderburn
10th December 2019 - 5 min read

What do you do to look after your pet’s teeth?

If you are like most dog and cat owners, you probably look after your pet’s dental care  “from a distance”, hoping that a few dry biscuits from time to time will be enough to keep their teeth healthy and clean. Then it is very likely that you wonder why your pet has such smelly breath when they get up close enough to breathe on you. 

Foul-Smelling Breath

Halitosis, or foul-smelling breath, is a common problem in the animal world. Dogs, in particular, are prone to having smelly mouths, partly because they are scavengers by nature. Dogs investigate the world with their mouths, and they often try to eat all sorts of strange objects. It is no wonder that the expression “dog breath” is a term that has entered the English language to describe humans who have less-than-sweet smelling breath.

dog teeth

Pet Oral Care Products

Nobody likes foul-smelling breath, and a huge market has developed supplying products that claim to give pets a clean, fresh mouth. Vets have always told pet owners that the best way of looking after their pet’s oral hygiene is regular tooth-brushing, but this is perceived as being awkward and time-consuming. Instead, there is now a wide range of more convenient pet mouth cleaning products that mirror the latest trends in human oral care:

  • Chews
  • Sprays
  • Wipes
  • Special tooth-cleaning diets

The latest “convenient” mouth cleaning products are widely available, in supermarkets as well as in pet shops and vet clinics. But do they work? And does your pet need them? 

Oral Hygiene Plan

The truth is that most pet owners do need to spend more time thinking about their pet’s oral hygiene. A proper plan should be put into place for a pet’s oral care, and this is likely to involve looking at a range of factors, including

  • Diet
  • Tooth brushing
  • The latest chew-type products

For many years, there has been a myth that animals’ teeth are somehow “self cleaning”. Unfortunately, this is no more true for dogs and cats than it is for humans. 

Dental Disease Myths

Some people try to blame modern refined pet foods for the bad breath of our pets, but there is plenty of evidence to show that dental disease in animals has been around for far longer than tinned and dry cat food.

More recent studies have demonstrated that even when animals eat completely natural diets, including raw meat and bones, they end up with the same dental disease as our pets.

So what is the answer? The first thing is to think about which part of the mouth is the source of the problem, and then to work out how to keep those areas clean.

Gum Disease

The main reason for halitosis is gum disease, caused by the accumulation of dental tartar. Tartar pushes against the gums, causing them to become red, sore, infected, and foul-smelling. Tartar can be prevented by regularly applying an abrasive substance to the tooth surface, and this is the principle behind tooth brushing.

In dogs and cats, tartar develops mostly in two areas: the large cheek teeth (molars and pre-molars) at the back of the mouth, and on the outside of the front teeth (the incisors and canines). So how can tartar be prevented from gathering in these areas?

Cleaning Your Pet’s Teeth

Tooth-Brushing

Tooth-brushing is the gold standard for keeping teeth clean, which is why human dentists are so enthusiastic about encouraging us all to brush regularly. The front teeth of pets are easy enough to reach with a toothbrush but to brush the cheek teeth effectively, you need to open your pet’s mouth wide, like a circus lion-tamer. Very few animals will allow their owners to give them this type of attention.

dog walking with brush

Chewing Hard Objects

This is where some of the “convenient” products can come in handy. Pets use their cheek teeth for chewing and grinding hard food stuff. If you watch a dog chewing anything hard, you will see that they push the object to the back of their mouths, and crunch it using the large, cube-shaped cheek teeth. There is more mechanical pressure at the back of the jaw because the teeth are closer to the “hinge” of the lower jaw. 

Teeth Cleaning Products

The products designed to keep pets’ teeth clean are mostly hard objects that are designed to be chewed. Some are made from hard rubber, some are made from raw-hide, and others are made from carefully designed combinations of nutritious food-stuffs. You can even buy a specially designed biscuit-type meal that has a formulation that cleans the teeth as it is crunched up by the pet. Most of these products have reasonable effectiveness for cleaning the cheek teeth of pets, which is handy since this is the most difficult part of a pet’s mouth for tooth brushing. If you are not sure which products are most effective, ask your vet, who may even have some of the more effective products for sale in the waiting room. 

The chewing process has relatively little impact on the outer surfaces of the front teeth, and this is where tooth brushing is the only effective answer. If you take thirty seconds, once a day, before you feed your pet, you will be able to rapidly clean this area. The main problem is training a dog or cat to accept this type of attention. It is best to start to handle a pet’s mouth from when they are very young so that they do not mind you poking about in their mouths.

Most older pets need an initial tooth-cleaning session at the vet, under anaesthesia, to make their mouths sparkly clean in the first place.  But after that, chew-products combined with some tooth-brushing are probably the best answer. 

Other Reasons to Look After Your Pet’s Teeth

Pet owners should also be aware that halitosis is only one of the reasons why it is important to look after pets’ teeth properly. There are two other reasons:

  1. Prevention of toothache
  2. Keeping your pet’s general health in good condition

Toothache

Toothache in pets is difficult to assess. An animal cannot come to their owner explaining about the pain in their mouth.

Symptoms

They are more likely to become dull, and generally less enthusiastic than normal, and it is very difficult for an owner to pinpoint the problem to toothache. The best answer is to make sure that you take your pet to the vet for an annual health check and vaccination assessment.

Examination

As part of the examination, the vet will carefully examine your pet’s teeth, looking for evidence of the type of problems that can cause pain. Dogs do not tend to get tooth decay, which is the most common cause of toothache, but it is common in cats.

Treatment

The only effective treatment is extraction of the affected tooth, but this is highly effective. Many owners notice that a cat becomes more playful and more contented immediately after the extraction of a painful tooth.

Good Health

Healthy teeth also have a connection with good general health. When a pet has a foul-smelling mouth, with infected gums, research has shown that bacteria can spread from here to the rest of the body, causing problems such as disease of the liver, kidneys, and heart. Good dental health has a correlation with good general health.