Be honest: When was the last time you took care of your dog’s or cat's teeth? It's more important to overall health than you might realize. Andrea Sanchez, DVM, explains.

By Lynya Floyd

Andrea Sanchez, DVM, of Banfield Pet Hospital offers up the whys and hows of keeping your pet’s pearlies white in our Q&A.

Q. I'm sure a lot of pet owners out there love their furbabies but struggle to find time to brush their teeth. Is it really that important?

A. Yes, it is. Dental disease in cats and dogs is very common and can be dangerous. When severe, it can lead to bacterial infections, and we’ve seen a correlation between dental disease and chronic diseases of the heart, kidneys and liver—even organ failure. At-home care is one of the best ways to help keep your pet’s teeth and gums healthy.

Q. What's a surprising fact about pet dental health that would be of special interest to our readers?

A. Parents may be surprised to know that their pet’s at-home dental care routine is a great opportunity to get kids involved in being responsible pet owners. They can even help with brushing—though we would never recommend they handle the actual brushing. Kids can provide positive reinforcement by gently petting the animal to ensure he is calm and relaxed, and give praise and treats when the brushing is done. Our new children’s book, My Very, Very Smelly Breath, is a great way to engage and educate little ones on your pet’s dental care.

A. Don’t expect tooth brushing to just happen overnight. No dog opens their mouth just because you tell them to say "ahhhhh.” That’s why we advocate for the flip/check/treat method—it’s a gradual way of teaching your pet that daily dental care at home is rewarding, fun and a very positive experience overall. Even once they do warm up to tooth brushing, you may have to adjust your routine. I have a cat who learned to love tooth brushing years ago, but at his recent professional oral exam, we found a lesion on one of his teeth that may be painful. I’ve taken a step back on the frequency of tooth brushing, temporarily using the brush on only one side of his mouth (the “good” side), and some days I substitute a feline Greenie for brushing. We’ll reevaluate at his upcoming professional dental cleaning.

Q. Are there any good substitutes for brushing your pet’s teeth daily?

A. Yes! You can use dental chews, as well as certain prescription-strength kibble, to treat your pet while helping with overall dental care. Always look for treats and chews that carry the seal from the Veterinary Oral Health Council. This is an independent research group that studies and validates all the different products out there to see how well they work when compared to tooth brushing.

Q. What is the number one dental health concern pet parents should watch out for in their dogs?

A. There are several indicators of dental disease that pet owners can check for when they flip, check and treat: Do they have stinky breath? This is one of the early signs of dental disease. Does your pet have red or swollen gums? Are your pet’s teeth yellow or brown? Loose or missing? How’s your pet’s appetite—still a chow hound? Different? Having trouble chewing bones? Losing weight? If you answered yes to any of the above questions, check with your veterinarian to see if your pet has dental disease.

Q. What's the biggest benefit of getting into the tooth-brushing habit with your pet?

A. Personally, for me and my pets, I feel the biggest benefit is the way that flip/check/treat helps me bond with them more every day, but the even bigger benefit is that you’re helping to prevent, treat and even reverse dental disease.