Smart Dental Hygiene: Home Care for Dogs and Cats

Smart Dental Hygiene: Home Care for Dogs and Cats
By: Emily Hoppmann, DVM

Excellent dental hygiene is a vital and necessary component of preventative healthcare in both dogs and cats. According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, approximately 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats have signs of dental disease by age 3! It’s no surprise then that one of the most common problems we see on a daily basis in our clinic is dental disease. When dental health is neglected, diseases in the mouth can progress significantly and spread to vital organs within the body including the heart, liver, and kidneys. This is why it is so important for dogs and cats to have a comprehensive physical exam every 6 months in order to keep track of tartar buildup and other changes to structures in the mouth. Just like people, dogs and cats accumulate tartar and bacteria at different rates; therefore, practicing good dental hygiene at home is the most efficient and cost-effective way to help control some factors that affect tartar buildup and contribute to dental disease.

There are several different options we recommend that you try at home in order to prolong the time before the first professional dental cleaning or to maintain your pet’s oral health in-between professional cleanings. These small lifestyle changes include brushing your dog or cats’ teeth, giving pulse therapy antibiotics, providing treats that are specifically designed to fight tartar and bacteria, and/or changing your pet’s food to a food specifically designed to promote good oral health.

Superior dental health begins with a proper diet. Feeding the wrong types of food can progress dental disease faster than necessary. You can start by making sure your cat or dog is on a dry, hard food rather than a moist, canned diet. Hard kibble, through its mild abrasive action on the teeth during chewing, helps to remove the build-up of bacterial plaque that will eventually harden into tartar. Hard food is also great because it provides chewing exercise and gum stimulation that isn’t benefitted from a canned diet. You should always avoid giving your pets unnecessary table scraps or sweet foods. Apart from the obvious side-effects of weight gain, dogs’ and cats’ bodies aren’t able to process foods like humans can and thus feeding human foods can increase the amount of plaque and tartar accumulation in their mouths and cause serious, sometimes fatal, diseases such as pancreatitis. Opting for healthy, low calorie treats such as raw carrots, celery, or raw sweet potato sticks will not only help maintain a healthy weight, but also aid in scrubbing their teeth. There are diets on the market formulated to specifically meet all the needs of maintaining good dental health, such as Hills® Prescription Diet® t/d Dental Health Formula. The t/d diet is designed to scrub away bacterial plaque and is formulated with added antioxidants to control cell oxidation and promote a healthy immune system—in simpler terms, it helps reduce plaque, staining, and tartar accumulation in the long run.

When it comes to at home oral care, brushing is the gold standard. Many dogs (and some cats surprisingly) will tolerate having their teeth brushed if the habit is managed gently and introduced gradually. It is highly encouraged to start introducing brushing at an early age, between 8 weeks and 6 months, but older pets are certainly able to accept having their teeth brushed. There are a few safety measures you should take when purchasing tooth brushing products for your dog or cat. First, NEVER use human toothpastes to brush your dog or cat’s teeth. Toothpastes formulated for humans can cause vomiting and other serious gastrointestinal issues if swallowed by your pet. Human toothpastes foam tremendously and can be a serious choking hazard to animals. Additionally, many types of toothpaste for people include an ingredient called xylitol which can be extremely toxic to dogs and cats and can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), seizures, liver failure or even death in dogs. It is also never a good idea to use toothbrushes made for humans either. They are often just too hard and can cause damage to gum tissue. Many companies make dog or cat specific toothpastes that come in a variety of enticing flavors. We highly recommend Virbac Animal Health’s C.E.T. Pet Toothbrushes, Toothpastes, and Oral Hygiene Kits. These are all able to be easily purchased through our online pharmacy at

When training a pet to accept routine brushing, it is a good rule of thumb to follow a few simple steps over the course of a few days to weeks.

1. Spend some time allowing your pet to get comfortable to the idea of your hands and fingers being near their mouth. Spend 1-2 minutes with your pet’s chin resting in your hand as you scratch the muzzle, lips and chin. Reward good behavior with praise (and a low-calorie treat if needed to keep your pet motivated).
2. Spend 15 seconds gently moving the lips up and down, and then follow with praise (and a low- calorie treat if needed). Gradually increase the time by 15 seconds until you reach 1 minute. Reward good behavior with tons of praise, extra loving, or time spent doing your pet’s favorite activity (such as playing fetch or chasing a laser pointer).
3. Dip your finger in a small amount of low sodium chicken or beef broth and then run your finger over the gums and teeth for 15 seconds. Your pet should naturally open his or her mouth for this step. If not, try something on your finger that you know your pet likes (their favorite canned food, peanut butter, etc.). Gradually increase the time by 15 seconds until you reach 2 minutes. Again, you always want to reward good behavior. Be careful not to use too much of their favorite higher-calorie food or use it for too long or it can make it more difficult to transition over to the toothpaste because they will come to expect you to be using the “good stuff”!
4. Introduce the brush or finger brush with pet-formulated toothpaste briefly for 15 seconds, then follow with praise. Gradually increase the time by 15 seconds until you reach 2 minutes. No matter how used to brushing your pet gets, you always want to end the session on a positive note so they will look forward to the next brushing session J

If you’ve tried brushing and it just doesn’t work out, or if your dog or cat simply won’t tolerate routine brushing, there are plenty of other options available to add into your dog or cat’s normal daily lifestyle that can help to improve dental health. There are a wide variety of different dental chews on the market such as Virbac Animal Health’s C.E.T.®Oral Hygiene Chews for both cats and dogs that work very well to keep tartar levels low and aid with freshening of the breath. Be careful when buying products over the counter for dental hygiene since some of these products can contain certain amounts of xylitol (just as in human products) and this is an ingredient that can have serious, even fatal, consequences if used in pets. Please feel free to bring in the label if you have purchased any of these types of products and we’d be happy to look over the labels to ensure your pet is getting a safe product.

Another easy way to promote good oral health is starting your pet on pulse therapy antibiotics. Pulsing antibiotics simply means that your pet will be put on a regiment of medication in short courses on a monthly basis. The antibiotic we choose specifically targets the type of bacteria that resides within the mouth. Keeping the bacteria in low numbers slows the progression of plaque and tartar buildup. This is yet another reason why it is so important to have your pet seen every 6 months for their oral exam. We can determine whether or not your cat or dog would benefit from pulse therapy, or if a professional cleaning followed by pulse therapy would be better for your pet. Often times when dental disease has progressed pretty far, a patient will be started on oral antibiotics before a surgery or dental cleaning and will continue antibiotics after the procedure to ensure that the bacteria released while in the mouth won’t have a chance to travel and affect other organs. The advantage of professional dental cleanings and pulse therapy antibiotics is that the tooth under the gum line can be addressed and this is where the bacteria tend to hide. This is why practicing good oral hygiene at home is important, but is no substitute for professional cleanings. You can actually only see (and clean) 20% of the tooth, so the portion of the teeth that you can’t affectively target at home can be addressed during dental cleanings!

Dental disease affects everyone: the four-legged and the two-legged creatures! The positive thing about your pet developing dental disease is that it’s a disease that can be very easily detected and managed. We, of course, have much more control over our dental health than our beloved four-legged sidekicks. We can easily brush our teeth multiple times a day, floss daily, use oral rinses, and go to the dentist every 6 months for our bi- annual cleanings. Our pets, however, do not have the luxury of making sure they brush and floss daily. As owners you can help tremendously by making small lifestyle changes that can help extend their lifetime with us for years to come. It is of course important to remember that none of these preventative measures can ever take the place of a professional dental cleaning and sedated oral exam, but every small change helps in the long-term management of the disease. Just like us, sometimes a good dental cleaning is necessary. Making sure to stay on top of dental care at home will help you to have a pet with pearly white teeth, no oral pain, no dangerous bacteria traveling through the bloodstream, and great breath for all those kisses and snuggles!