Ever been kissed by your pet – and recoiled from a blast of doggy breath? It’s a funny thing but we wash and groom our dogs, yet how many of us have a doggy toothbrush?

Cavities are rare in dogs because their mouths don’t have the same sort of bacteria as ours. However, they get bits of food stuck to their teeth, and develop dental tartar and gum disease just as we might.

Also, dogs can break teeth. Most often, they crack or damage a tooth while they are chewing. However, it is extremely likely that you won’t know about it because dogs instinctively hide pain.

Scientists believe that this behaviour is linked to your pet’s survival instinct: in the wild, the animal that shows weakness is first to be attacked by predators. Of course, your pet is safe at home. However, the inbuilt safeguards in the dog’s brain means your pet will suffer in silence. It is only when you help your pet get the right care, that they magically cheer up.

Luckily, pet health standards and knowledge of canine dental health are advancing, so you can help your pet maintain a nice, clean, pain-free mouth.

Dr Nancy Tong and Dr Ding Chee Min are a wife-and-husband veterinarian team with 17 years’ experience each who run St Angel Animal Medical Centre, in Puchong, Selangor. They have specialist dental scaling and polishing equipment, as well as x-ray machines that let them work on pet dental cases.

“There are a number of signals that your pet has a problem,” Dr Tong advises. “Bad breath and visible tartar are easy to spot. Difficulty or hesitation in chewing is also obvious if you watch them eat.

“However, you should also look out for more subtle signs. One sign is if your pet doesn’t like his face touched. If there is a bad tooth, the whole side of the face may be sore. Also, do recognise that the nose and mouth are places close together. So, if your pet has a problem with drooling or a runny nose, these can signal secret tooth problems, too.”

Dr Ding advises that you get your vet to check your dog’s teeth once a year. “Any time you go in – be it for vaccinations, flea and worm treatment, or just clipping claws – your vet will have a look,” he points out. “Dental checks are typically part of every visit.”

Dog

Dr Ding checking Hugo’s teeth. Get your pet used to daily brushing from when they are pups, he advises. Photo: Ellen Whyte

If there is a problem, you will most likely have to schedule a new appointment. This is because even the nicest dog isn’t going to sit with its mouth open for 40 minutes while the scaling machine is doing its job.

If your pet has broken teeth and dental plaque, you go in and your pet has a shot that knocks it out. Once the patient is asleep, the vet can have a very good look at the mouth.

At this point, broken or dead teeth are removed. If there are pockets of infection, these are cleaned. Then the vet uses ultrasonic and sonic power scalers as well as hand instruments to remove tartar from the remaining teeth.

In some countries, dentists have made crowns for dogs. However, it’s not by any means routine – yet. At the moment, extraction is the routine way to deal with problem teeth.

As canine dental care typically involves anaesthesia, there is always a risk.

“As a rule of thumb, dogs that are seven or more years older are considered mature, and dogs aged over 10 are elderly,” Dr Tong points out. “You’d look at the general health and perhaps do blood work before deciding if the dog can take the operation. Also, you may want to take an x-ray of the mouth – just like dentists do.”

Prices vary, but a typical price range for cleaning runs from RM150-RM400, with blood work and x-rays running around RM100-RM150 upwards. In other words, you may pay anywhere from RM150 to several thousand ringgit, depending on what’s involved.

“Prevention is best,” Dr Ding suggests. “Get your pet used to daily brushing from when they are pups. You start by putting a cloth around your finger and ‘fake brushing’ when they are tiny.

“Do the front teeth, praise and stop. Then gradually move to brushing the back teeth. Take it slowly and always make it rewarding for the dog. And yes, you can also reward with treats!”

There are doggy toothbrushes but if your pet is small, look for a baby toothbrush. Most importantly: do know that toothpaste for humans is poisonous for dogs.

“Human toothpaste may be formulated in a way that may not be suitable for pets,” Dr Tong warns. “You can have tummy upsets and liver disease, and some brands in particular are simply toxic to pets. So use a brush with water, buy a paste specially formulated for dogs or ask your vet.”

As pets eat every day, you should brush every day. Clearly, this is an issue if you have an adult dog who has never seen a toothbrush.

“It shouldn’t be a battle,” Dr Ding smiles. “Start with the front teeth, be gentle and make sure it’s all part of your bonding process. Be firm but don’t escalate it until there’s a massive struggle. Slowly, gently and consistently is the way.”

In addition, you might also buy some dental treats specially designed to help deal with some of the dental plaque that builds up over time.

“You need to train your dog from young to chew as it’s a natural action that cleans teeth,” Dr Ding reveals. “So buy chew toys and dog bones, and make sure your pet has a fun time.”

Advice to bring a smile to every pet’s face.


About dental chews and treats

A good diet and frequent brushing is the best way to prevent doggy dental issues. Even better, you can co-opt delicious treats and fun chew toys too.

There are chews designed to clean your pet’s teeth as they chew. Some are edible and designed to break down over hours or days. They are typically very tough, so your pet has to gnaw on them in order to force-brush their teeth.

Others are made of really strong plastic with irregular edges. You can spread these with peanut butter or specially formulated meat-flavoured pastes, and your pet will chew on them for years.

Tip: Do buy the appropriate size as a chew that’s too small may be ingested and cause your pet to choke. Also, for older dogs with more fragile teeth and jaws, pick a softer chew.

There are also rough-edged doggy biscuits that are designed to be extra chewy. You can sprinkle these in with their regular meals or offer a mini bowl as a treat.

The No.1 issue is that dog treats and chews are not regulated. This means that you have to do your research, or you may be stuck with a product that offers little or no value to your pet.

One short cut is to buy from vets and to rely on them to do the research. Another is to look for known endorsements. Some veterinary associations don’t think it’s ethical for them to endorse products, so there is a limit to approved products. Seals you can look out for include the US Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) and the British Veterinary Dental Association (BVDA).

Tip: If you buy a permanent chew, look for the ones made of materials that will show up on x-rays.

Then, if your pet does manage to chew it up, you can tell right off if they’ve swallowed it or not, and if they have digested it, if it’s a problem.