06 June 2014 | Dog Health & Behaviour Advice

Is a dog’s mouth actually cleaner than a human’s?

By Dr Megan Kelly

If a dog doesn’t have adequate dental care, bacteria and their toxins can accumulate in the plaque and tartar of a dog’s mouth potentially poisoning the rest of the body.

Food accumulates on the teeth and combines with bacteria to form plaque. Over time this calcifies and hardens and forms a yellow layer on the teeth called tartar or calculus. By brushing you’re able to remove plaque; however you need to use a scaler in order to remove the harder, more stubborn tartar. If tartar is not removed, the gums become inflamed and infected. They start to recede, which is known as gingival recession. The teeth start to loosen and pockets form under the gums predisposing the pet to infection and abscess formation. We call this periodontal or dental disease. The mouth has an extremely good blood supply and the bacteria in the tartar produce toxins which can easily be absorbed into the body. The toxins from periodontal disease are absorbed into the pet’s bloodstream and can cause damage to the kidneys, heart and brain. Bacteria can also set up colonies in parts of the body, for example the valves of the heart. This forms a nidus that could continually infect the body with bits of the bacterial colony that break off and are pumped around the body by the bloodstream.

The best treatment for periodontal disease is prevention and it’s never too late. If you open your pet’s mouth and you notice red gums, bad breath, loose teeth and yellow tartar, book an appointment with your vet. Sometimes your pet’s mouth may be too painful to examine. Other signs that your pet may be suffering from dental disease include difficulty in eating, dropping food and excessive drooling.

After a light general anaesthetic and intubation, your vet will clean your pet’s teeth with an ultrasonic scaler. This removes all the plaque and tartar. If there are any loose teeth these will be removed and then the teeth will be polished so that there is a smooth surface making it difficult for food and bacteria to stick. There are now qualified dental veterinary surgeons that specialise in fillings and root canal treatment for pets. You should ask your vet to be referred to a specialist if you do not want your pet to lose any teeth.

The next steps are up to you. Brushing and caring for your pet’s teeth will reduce the likelihood of your pet requiring more dental treatment in future years. Plaque will continually build up and if left to harden, will form tartar which will need to be scaled off.

6 steps to healthy teeth and gums

  1. Brush your pet’s teeth

We use a pet’s or soft-bristled child’s toothbrush. Please don’t use human toothpaste. The foaming, fluoride and minty taste are not to our pet’s liking. Rather use a pet toothpaste which is usually flavoured with a meaty taste and doesn’t foam. Apply a small amount of toothpaste and brush in circular motions. The teeth at the very back of the mouth usually have the most plaque and tartar. Ideally one should brush daily or at least 3 times weekly. If your pet doesn’t take too well to brushing, there are specific gels available on the  market. These can be squeezed into the sides of the mouth and then around all the teeth by using the cheeks. These gels are not as efficient at cleaning as brushing, but are helpful for those pets who are very opposed to brushing. Remember that dental disease also occurs below the gum line, not only on the surface of the teeth.

2.  Consider changing your pet’s food

What type of food do you feed your pet? Softer tinned foods tend to be sticky and attach to the teeth, making it easier for plaque and eventually tartar to form. Consider trying pelleted food or adding raw, uncooked bones (please only get these from your vet) to help clean their teeth. You also get special teeth diets that have a specially shaped and formed pellet that scrapes along the tooth before it crumbles. This is ideal for a pet that continually suffers from periodontal disease.

More tips:

  1. Buy treats especially designed to help clean teeth. Ask your vet or vet shop for dental chews. Some have enzymes in the chews to help break down plaque and tartar.
  2. Check your pet’s mouth regularly. Lift the lips to check the gums for redness, loose teeth, bad breath and the presence of tartar.
  3. Get chewy toys to help with dental hygiene. Make sure these are not harder than your pet’s teeth, otherwise this can result in tooth fractures or damage the gums.
  4. Invest in natural products to help break down tartar. A seaweed harvested along the Norwegian and Canadian coast is given orally daily. This seaweed is absorbed into the blood and prevents accumulation of plaque by affecting the ability of plaque to stick to the surfaces of the mouth or teeth. It is also reported to loosen tartar. Improvements can be seen in about 3-6 weeks.

Dogs have 42 adult teeth and cats have 30. Let’s start looking after them and try get our pet’s mouths as clean as your own.

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