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By Herb Weisbaum

February is National Pet Dental Health Month and veterinarians have a message for pet parents: Good oral health is just as important for your dogs and cats as it is for the other members of your family.

Proper dental hygiene can reduce bad breath, improve overall health and increase longevity.

“The dental care of your animals is as important as anything else you do for them,” said Dr. John de Jong, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). “You can prevent a lot of pain, loss of teeth and secondary health issues caused by bacterial infections, such as heart, liver and kidney problems.”

The AVMA says periodontal disease — a serious gum infection — is the most common dental condition in dogs and cats. By the age of three, most pets show signs of periodontal disease, which will only get worse as they grow older, if preventive measures aren’t taken. Without treatment, the gums will eventually recede, and the teeth will become loose. Some may fall out or need to be extracted.

Note: Small dogs are more likely to have dental problems than larger breeds.

The AVMA says dogs and cats should have a veterinary dental cleaning annually starting at age two, or sooner if you observe any of the following problems:

  • bad breath
  • broken or loose teeth
  • extra teeth or retained baby teeth
  • teeth that are discolored or covered in tartar
  • abnormal chewing, drooling, or dropping food from the mouth
  • reduced appetite or refusal to eat
  • pain in or around the mouth
  • bleeding from the mouth
  • swelling in the areas surrounding the mouth

SHOULD YOU WORRY ABOUT HAVING YOUR DOG OR CAT ANESTHETIZED?

Since your pet probably won’t sit still and can’t “open real wide,” they’ll need to be anesthetized for a complete dental exam and cleaning.

“We’re pretty limited in what we can evaluate with a pet that’s fully awake and a lot of dental diseases hide under the gum line,” said Dr. Jason Nicholas, president and chief medical officer of PreventiveVet.com. “Without anesthesia, you can’t probe along the gum line and it’s physically impossible to take dental X-rays, which are vitally important to fully evaluate the health of the oral cavity.”

Some pet parents skip full dental checkups to avoid having their dog or cat anesthetized, even though the risk of complications is extremely low.

“I know that putting a patient under anesthesia can be a little bit scary, but most veterinarians are incredibly careful and very thoughtful about when to put their patients under,” said Nadine Fiani, an assistant clinical professor at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “We do an extensive amount of care prior to putting them under anesthesia — we check blood work, we make sure their heart is okay. And we monitor them during the procedure.”

Dr. Heidi Shafford, a board-certified veterinary anesthesiologist who practices in Portland, Ore., urges people to check with their vet to make sure someone is assigned to monitor their pet during the procedure.

“At many clinics, the person who's doing the procedure is also ‘monitoring’ anesthesia and they really need to have one person dedicated to monitoring anesthesia and one person focused on the procedure,” Shafford said. “This is not yet common, but it makes a big difference.”

Some vets, pet stores and groomers offer what’s called “anesthesia free dental cleanings.” The procedure involves scaling the teeth, scaping with an instrument, without using anesthesia. To do this, your pet is physically restrained.

The AVMA says this scraping and restraining can be highly stressful and “could cause a great deal of discomfort and pain to your pet.”

The AVMA also cautions: Anesthesia free dental procedures “are not able to clean beneath the gumline to prevent periodontal disease, nor are they able to look beneath the gum-line to identify problems before they become painful and expensive to treat. White teeth do not mean a clean and healthy mouth.”

PUTTING OFF THE INEVITABLE

Delaying proper treatment can result in prolonged discomfort for your pet and serious dental problems that are more difficult and costlier to treat.

“You either pay something every year to try to maintain their teeth or you end up dropping a whole lot later to remove a bunch of teeth all at once, if they’ve gotten really bad,” said Dr. Colleen Cassidy at veterinarian at Rainier Veterinary Hospital near Seattle.

Adam Scheurich, who took Levi, his 13-year-old Chihuahua mix, to Dr. Cassidy recently, put off full oral exams because of his concern about anesthesia. Scheurich now realizes he waited too long. Dr. Cassidy had to remove several teeth that were loose and causing Levi pain.

“Levi now feels so much better. He’s more energetic, running around a lot more and acting a lot younger,” Scheurich told NBC News BETTER. “Looking back, we should have done something sooner.”

Although the cost of a full dental checkup and cleaning varies from vet to vet and city to city, expect to pay somewhere between $250 and $500 or so. The final bill will be significantly higher should teeth need to extracted.

NOTE: If cost is a concern, talk to your vet about ways to lower the costs. There may be treatment options.

THINGS YOU CAN DO AT HOME

Regularly brushing your pet’s teeth is the single most effective thing can do to keep your pet’s teeth healthy between dental cleanings by your veterinarian. The AVMA says it may even reduce the frequency of those professional cleanings.

Daily brushing is the goal, but even a few days a week can significantly reduce plaque buildup.

Yes, it can be a real challenge, especially with a cat. That’s why it’s best to start when your pets are young — even if they still have their baby teeth — so they get accustomed to having this done.

Try a flavored pet toothpaste and give it to them as a treat. After a few weeks, you can start brushing with it. Warning: Do not use human toothpaste. Pet toothpaste is made to be swallowed.

Other products for home use:

  • Chew treats designed to clean teeth.
  • Dental foods that provide better cleaning action.
  • Anti-plaque water additive, oral gel or oral spray.

NOTE: Do not use antlers. Elk, deer and reindeer antlers are all the rage right now, but they can break your dog’s teeth or cause puncture wounds.

Talk to you vet about which products might be right for your pet and choose products with the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal.

“It’s important to remember that these are really helpful tools that can slow down the rate of periodontal disease, but they won’t cure it.” said Cornell’s Fiani. “It’s a chronic, ongoing issue that has to be managed for the rest of your pet’s life.”

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