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Paws and Smiles: Best Practices for Pet’s Dental Care

Dental hygiene for pets was only considered a necessity in recent years. However, it is now known that caring for teeth is not just for humans. If you have never learned how to brush your pet’s teeth, this guide is here to help you know all about oral health care for your precious pet. Information about pet insurance is also covered so you can prepare for possible costs if professional cleanings or extractions are needed.

Why brushing is important

The American Veterinary Medical Association reports that it is common for pets as young as three to have dental disease. Brushing teeth is not just for keeping teeth white. It’s to keep the teeth and gums healthy, including the roots, tissues, and bones surrounding the teeth.

Periodontal disease is the most prevalent dental condition affecting adult pets, according to the American Veterinary Dental College. As the disease progresses, teeth may become loose, develop painful infections, and eventually need to be extracted. Many times, this requires the pet to be sedated for oral surgery. However, this can be avoided with proper teeth-brushing.

Brushing your pet's teeth also prevents systemic problems such as heart, kidney, or liver disease, which can develop because poor oral health can lead to poor general health.

Regular tooth brushing, regular exams, and possible cleanings by your veterinarian are the most effective tools to protect your pet from the risks mentioned above. Just like humans, your pets can get plaque and tartar on their teeth, leading to gingivitis and periodontal disease, which causes pain, infection, and tooth loss. You can prevent all that with good dental hygiene.

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Getting started with tooth brushing

You must begin by being incredibly patient. Getting your pet used to having their teeth brushed must be a gradual process. You also need the correct tools. Do not use human toothpaste or brushes. There’s too much fluoride in regular toothpaste for your dog or cat to tolerate if they swallow it, and the sugar substitute xylitol sometimes found in human toothpaste is toxic to dogs. Also, dog and cat toothpaste comes in flavors that are appealing to them, such as poultry, beef, or seafood, and does not require spitting.

Likewise, select a toothbrush that is specially made for dogs or cats. Smaller pets may benefit from using a human toothbrush designed for infants or toddlers. Opt for a soft-bristled brush.

Step-by-step guide to brushing your pet's teeth at home

You must start by doing each step gradually. It can take weeks to get to the point where you can comfortably and effectively brush your pet’s teeth. Get started at a time when your dog or cat is calm. That may be when they are tired from playing or taking a walk. Reduce stress by creating a quiet, comfortable environment.

Guide to brushing dog teeth
  1. The first step is to familiarize your pet with the brush and paste. Let your pet sniff and lick them, and give treats as a reward. If your pet enjoys the taste of the toothpaste, you can also give small amounts of the toothpaste as a reward for other positive behaviors. This way, your pet thinks their toothpaste is a treat, which may lead to more excitement around tooth-brushing time.
  2. Work on proper positioning after a few days of getting familiar with the brush and paste. Keep your pet sitting or lying comfortably and closely in front of you. The most important thing is that you have gentle control of the head.
  3. Gently lift the lips and run the toothbrush with a bit of paste along the area where the teeth meet the gums. Begin with gentle strokes, allowing your pet to get accustomed to the sensation. Hold the brush at a 45-degree angle and use circular motions.
  4. Concentrate on each tooth. Go from tooth to tooth, covering as much of the tooth as possible, both on the inside and outside of the tooth. It’s essential to try to brush the back teeth because that is where most dental disease develops.
  5. Offer treats at each step of the way. If, at any point, your dog or cat is uncomfortable and resistant, take a step back. If your pet gets too uncomfortable, consider stopping for a few days and starting over. It should take several days to weeks before you can brush for the recommended time of two minutes.
  6. Brushing every day is the recommendation, but brushing several times a week is a significant step for maintaining your pet's oral health.

Alternative dental care options

Not every dog or cat will let you brush their teeth. You may have to consider alternatives for dental care. Here are some favorites:

Dental chews and treats

Treats that encourage chewing help scrape away plaque and massage the gums. Look for products with the Veterinary Oral Health Council's seal of approval and pick the best dental chews for your pet's breed.

Dental toys

Recently, pet product manufacturers have brought toys for pets onto the market that are made of particular materials to help remove plaque from the teeth. There are rubber chew balls that have soft rubber bristles, toys in the shape of a bone with rubber bristles, rubber wheel spokes with a center hole to put toothpaste in, and many others.

Dental toys are usually made of rubber or tough nylon and have edges or ridges to help scrape off the plaque. Toys should have some bend and you should be able to indent the surface with your fingernail. Items which are too hard run the risk of causing tooth fractures.

Water additives and sprays

These products work to reduce plaque and tartar without any manual intervention. As the names imply, you add the water additive to your pet's drinking water or spray directly on the teeth. If you prefer the spray, you can get a teeth cleaning spray from many companies. They contain chlorine dioxide, sodium citrate, and zinc chloride. Do not use anything with xylitol. Knowing which one to buy is difficult, so ask your veterinarian.

Many vets sell additives or sprays. Always consult your veterinarian before putting anything in your pet's water or mouth. These products should also have the VOHC seal of approval.

Dental wipes

You can use these specially formulated cloths to wipe your pet's teeth, trying to cover all teeth inside and out. Sodium hexametaphosphate fights stains and tartar. Zinc may be in the wipes also and is safe. Again, check with your vet before using and consider the dental products they recommend.

Dental diets

Whether dental diets really work has become an increasingly popular topic of conversation. The answer is that some do, while others do not fulfill their claims. Your vet is obviously a good person to talk to about which diet is most likely to help your pet. They will likely recommend the following:

  • Check the labels. Was the product developed with the advice of veterinarians and possibly even endorsed by them?
  • Look for diets that are backed with trials and studies that demonstrate their ability to fight dental disease.
  • Understand what ingredients are used and why they're effective. For example, coarse, fibrous textures are the best for helping to mechanically clean teeth. There may also be additives that have enzymes that dissolve and prevent the build-up of tartar. Diets that are high in certain minerals can help prevent plaque and periodontal disease.
  • There are prescription-only dental diets which are proven to reduce tartar build-up. You need a veterinarian prescription for these. These diets should have the VOHC seal of approval, too.

Despite your home care, whether it is tooth brushing or some of the alternative therapies, there is no replacement for a good veterinary exam of your pet’s mouth and a professional cleaning when needed.

Maintaining a dental care routine

When it comes to pet teeth cleaning, consistency is key.

  • Brush daily if possible or three times a week if that's all you can manage.
  • If you can't brush, consider alternatives such as water additives, dental treats or food, dental toys, and chews.
  • Schedule a professional pet teeth cleaning when your veterinarian says it's time.

Signs of dental problems

Pets are not always good at letting us know when something is bothering them, especially cats. However, there are symptoms and behavioral signs of dental discomfort in pets to watch for, that will let you know that prompt attention is needed.

  • Bleeding from the mouth
  • Loss of appetite
  • Swollen cheek
  • Dropping food out of the mouth
  • Chewing on only one side of the mouth
  • Red or swollen gums
  • Bad breath
  • Losing adult teeth
  • Heavy tartar or plaque build-up

If any of the above happens, you need an appointment with your veterinarian right away. Even if you don't have any of these problems, your pet should have an annual dental exam by your veterinarian.

Dental care in pet insurance policies

What about the costs of dental care? If your pet happily lets you brush their teeth and they're one of the lucky ones that don't need anything else done, then the cost will be low. Unfortunately, this is most often not the case. Most dogs and cats require a professional cleaning periodically. Some need it every year; others only need it every two or three years. Pet teeth cleaning costs approximately $300–500. Pets won’t sit still in a chair like humans and let a noisy scaler run up and down their teeth and under the gum line. They have to be anesthetized and monitored carefully. You may want to know if pet insurance covers teeth cleaning.

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Does pet insurance cover teeth cleaning?

Pet insurance may cover teeth cleaning, depending on your company and policy. It varies from plan to plan. Wellness or preventative plans often include dental cleanings but not extractions. Accident and illness or comprehensive coverage might cover a portion of the costs if the dental cleaning is recommended by a veterinarian to manage a health condition. Sometimes, it’s part of your basic plan, or it may only be available if you have a dental add-on attached to your plan. This is an important question you want to ask when shopping for pet insurance.

Does pet insurance cover teeth removal?

It’s not uncommon for a pet to need a tooth extraction. Many pets have not had their teeth brushed regularly or have a genetic predisposition to periodontal disease and need extractions. The procedure may be part of a basic insurance plan, or it may require an add-on with an additional premium.

However, having a financial plan, such as a savings account just for your pet or pet insurance, is essential in case your dog or cat needs an extraction. This procedure is even more expensive than routine teeth cleaning. It can exceed a thousand dollars depending on how many teeth need to be extracted.

Care for your pet’s mouth as you care for your own

Dental care for your pet is essential. There are many preventative options to help keep your pet’s mouth healthy. Part of dental care will require regular professional cleanings and possible extractions. Pet insurance is one way to help you financially. A healthy mouth helps lead to a healthy body and a happier life.

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