Looking after your dog’s teeth
Dental disease in dogs
When your four-legged friend has healthy teeth and gums they can get the most out of their food, crunching every delicious kibble as they go, but if their teeth hurt they’ll soon go off their meals and their metabolism will suffer.
Poor dental care doesn’t just affect their mouths; the bacteria generated by dental disease could eventually enter your dog’s bloodstream and potentially damage their heart, liver or kidneys. So, as a loving owner, what do you need to look out for to protect your pet’s pearly whites?
Bacteria constantly form in your dog’s mouth and when they mix with with saliva and leftover morsels of food, your dog will get a sticky and colourless film (plaque) collecting on the outside of their teeth, especially their upper pre-molars and molars. It’s important to clean this plaque off dog’s teeth as if it’s left to build up, it can harden to form tartar.
After 3-5 days of being left untouched, plaque forms another alliance, this time with the minerals in your dog’s saliva. This hardens the plaque and it turns it into tartar, also known as calculus. Tartar can irritate your dog’s gums causing gingivitis, a swelling and reddening of the gums, and can lead to bad breath - something you’re likely to notice quite quickly! Dry dog foods can help scrape away plaque and tartar but you’ll still need to supplement this with some dog dental care.
How can you spot the warning signs?
You should examine your dog's mouth regularly for signs of oral disease. The first hint is likely to be their bad breath (which is hard to ignore) but also look out for reddened, bleeding or swollen gums, crusted yellow-brown tartar build-up on the teeth and drooling.
If your dog develops severe gingivitis you might also notice them dropping food when they eat, eating on one side of their mouth, or not eating at all, which can all lead to weight loss. While you’re giving their mouth a good once over, look for fractured, discoloured or missing teeth and lumps and bumps on their gum line and make sure their jaw itself isn’t swollen or misshapen.
Trauma to the teeth
Of course not all dental problems are caused by disease – your dog’s teeth could get broken or fractured by vigorous chewing on very hard objects or simply by an accidental injury when they’re playing. Whenever you examine your dog’s mouth, check for broken or worn teeth and encourage your pet to chew on dog chews and toys rather than stones or sticks.
How to clean dogs’ teeth
Ideally you should aim to brush your dog’s teeth every day, as you do your own, but if that’s not possible, try to give your dog's teeth and gums some attention at least 3-4 times a week.
If you’re not sure how to clean your dog’s teeth the best bit of advice would be to start early. Dental care should begin while your puppy still has their deciduous puppy teeth (they’ll lose these at about 4-6 months old). If you can get your puppy used to you looking in their mouth and brushing their teeth when they’re young, it will make it so much easier later in life.
Start slowly and systematically, picking a time when your puppy is calm and quiet. Start by simply lifting the lips on either side of their mouth then progress to rubbing their teeth carefully with a finger wrapped in gauze or a soft flannel. You want the experience to be pleasurable, so keep it short and to the point. Concentrate on the outside of their teeth, where plaque is most likely to build up, and praise your puppy throughout. Give them a treat as you finish each session, so that they learn behaving themselves during brushing is a rewarding experience for them.
Once your dog’s accepted having their teeth gently wiped it’s time to progress to a soft dog toothbrush (you can get these at your vet surgery). Don’t worry about toothpaste at first; it’s more important to get them used to the sensation of the brush. Soak the toothbrush in warm water and apply to the teeth with the brush head at a 45-degree angle, so you can focus on reaching under the gum line where their teeth and gums meet. Stroke up and down gently, in even movements, with only a little pressure.
Only when your dog is completely happy with their special dog toothbrush should you start to introduce enzymatic canine toothpaste. These are specially formulated for dogs, with flavours that include meat, mint and malt – yum! Just as you wouldn’t want to use dog toothpaste, your dog should never use human toothpaste either.
Of course some dogs just won’t accept you fiddling around in their mouths, particularly if dog dental care only began later in their lives, but don’t give up. With patience and time you should be able to persuade them to have their teeth brushed but, in the meantime, there are a few other things you could try such as oral hygiene gels, available from your vet, that contain enzymes to inhibit the bacteria responsible for plaque, chew toys and specially formulated dental chew products designed to reduce tartar and massage the gums. If your older dog isn’t too keen on having their teeth brushed, speak to your vet as they may be able to give you some helpful tips.
Dental examination at the vet
At a regular dental check-up, your vet will look at several different areas to make sure your dog’s mouth is a healthy as it can be. This includes examining your dog’s face and head to look out for any asymmetry, swelling or discharges. They will then look into their mouth and check the lining of their lips, the surfaces of their teeth and gums, the hard-to-reach inner surfaces of their teeth and gums as well as their tongue, palate, tonsils and the area underneath the tongue.
If your dog's teeth have tartar build up your vet may recommend that this is removed, and their teeth polished, under anaesthetic. This professional dental cleaning procedure (called a prophylaxis) might include:
- Flushing their mouth with an antibacterial solution.
- Cleaning their teeth with handheld and ultrasonic scalers to remove tartar from above and below the gum line.
- Using a disclosing solution to show any areas of remaining tartar – and then removing it.
- Polishing their teeth to remove microscopic scratches.
- Inspecting each tooth, and the gum around it, for any signs of disease.
- Extracting any teeth that are beyond repair.
- Once your dog’s teeth are spick and span your vet will then advise you how you can keep them that way. By cleaning your dog’s teeth at home you can take on the responsibility of their regular dental care, cut down on vet visits and help keep your dog’s teeth and breath squeaky clean!