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You brush your teeth every day — but what about your dog's or cat's? "Most people have no idea that taking care of a pet's teeth will extend the animal's life," says Larry Corry, DVM, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "In fact, periodontal disease is the most commonly diagnosed problem in dogs and cats." Left unchecked, periodontitis can lead to painful infections, and in severe cases, become life-threatening because harmful mouth bacteria can enter the bloodstream and inflame other parts of the body. But don't fret. Use these tips and toys for getting your pet's mouth squeaky clean.
Start brushing your pet's teeth as soon as you get him. The routine is the same for cats and dogs, just go slower with cats, suggests Brook A. Niemiec, DVM, since they are less receptive to brushing than dogs.
Begin by placing your fingers just inside his lips. Gradually build up to running your fingers along his teeth and gums. Reward him with a food treat, since eating helps scrape the tartar off of teeth, and the prize keeps the experience positive. Repeat with a child's soft toothbrush or one specially designed for animals.
Get your dog or cat some veterinary toothpaste, which you can buy at the vet's office or at a pet supply store. Don't use your own toothpaste animals don't like the taste and the ingredients can end up giving them a stomachache. Let him taste the toothpaste, then run your finger along his gums. Avoid placing your hand all the way inside his mouth.
Position the toothbrush near the upper back teeth and angle slightly up, so the bristles get under the gum line. Work from back to front, making small circles along gums. For cats, pay special attention to canine teeth, the long fangs in the front, and the back molars. Leave the toothpaste on the teeth no rinsing! since the enzymes in the paste help dissolve tartar.
Keep it short. Brush for only a minute or two, two to three times per week, says Dr. Corry just be sure to hit all the tooth surfaces and the gums. After brushing is complete, always provide another treat.
Does My Pet Need a Dentist?
Like humans, pets can get cavities. At home, examine your pet's mouth every time you brush his teeth. Bad breath is the most common sign of periodontal disease. Other red flags include yellow or brown plaque where the tooth meets the gum line, red or bleeding gums, or a swollen face. "Even if your pet is in pain, he will usually still eat normally," says Dr. Niemiec. "Don't use his appetite as a guide to alert you that something is wrong." Your vet should do a thorough oral exam during the annual visit. Small dogs need their mouths checked every six months because their teeth are closer together and at greater risk of infection. If your vet discovers serious problems, he'll refer you to a veterinary dentist, who is often covered by pet insurance.
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Tartar Shield Soft Rawhide Chews
Gnawing on this bacon-flavored treat gently removes Fido's tartar. Rawhide is coated with a mixture containing sodium tripolyphosphate to reduce tartar formation and an antimicrobial agent to prevent plaque and bad breath.
Available at Tartarshield.com, $7.99.
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Kong Dental Stick
Insert your dog's favorite treat inside and watch him go chew-crazy, or simply use the empty stick as a fetch toy. Deep ridges pick out food from teeth while providing a gentle gum massage.
Available at Petco.com, $10.99.
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Petstages Fishy Fun Cat Toy
These chew toys are filled with catnip and catnip stalks for more crunch and more tooth-scraping action. Kitties will be enthralled by the fins and ribbon tails. The nylon material won't tear even when your pal sinks her teeth into them.
Available at Petsmart.com, $3.99.
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Feline Greenies Dental Treats
The unique plaque-scraping shape of these treats helps reduce tartar and plaque. It's perfectly portioned at just 2 calories per piece and contains no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives.
Available at Petco.com, $3.99.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.