Did you know that spending three minutes brushing your pet’s teeth can improve his or her quality of life?

It’s true.

Brushing your pet’s teeth may be one of the most important and easiest things you can do at home to safeguard his or her health. Without it, bacteria, tartar and plaque pile onto teeth. The first symptom of illness may be bad breath, which evolves to periodontal (gum) disease. Left untreated, bacteria in the mouth get into the bloodstream and can affect overall health.

“The constant showering of bacteria into the blood stream can affect liver, kidneys, joints and the heart,” said Sara Sharp, CVT, secretary of Academy of Veterinary Dental Technicians.

Fortunately, you can help protect your pet with daily tooth brushing. It is surprisingly easy to learn — and many pets enjoy the experience once they get used to it.

“I have a cat that actually brings me her toothbrush,” said Kate Knutson, DVM, of Pet Crossing Animal Hospital and Dental Clinic in Minneapolis, MN. “She lives to have her teeth brushed.”

Studies show the presence of periodontal disease in about 50 percent of the animals with severe, life-threatening infections, said Clarence Sitzman, DVM, president of the American Veterinary Dental Society.  Sitzman has seen serious health problems disappear after oral disease is treated.

“I had cases where animals with bad oral disease also had heart murmurs,” which are indicators of heart disease, Sitzman said. “We put them on antibiotics, cleaned their teeth and pulled teeth as necessary. In at least five cases, when these animals came in for rechecks, they didn’t have heart murmurs any more.”

What to Expect

Annual dental exams performed by veterinarians include general evaluations and tooth charting, scaling (cleaning that removes tartar above and below the gum line), polishing, and X-rays while your pet is under anesthesia.

“Cats have a tendency to get juvenile periodontitis,” and lesions in the mouth, Knutson said. Under anesthesia, veterinarians treat these problems and stop the spread of infection. Without treatment, Knutson said, “teeth can literally disintegrate.”

New guidelines from the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) advise regular teeth cleanings and dental evaluations as early as one year of age for cats and small breed dogs, and at two years of age for large breed dogs.

Dana Hood of Denver, Colo, began brushing her 13-year-old Pomeranian’s teeth when she adopted the dog 11 years ago.

“My veterinarian told me about the importance of brushing Punkin’s teeth, and he gave me one of those little finger brushes to get started,” Hood said. “Now, Punkin is real good about it.”

Hood uses dog treats and other products to supplement daily tooth brushing. “The biggest fallacy [pet owners have] is that big, crunchy food is enough. That’s ridiculous,” Hood said. Treats help, but they don’t get between the teeth, she added.

Knutson agrees. “Brushing is the gold standard of home dental care,” she said.

This article originally appeared in PetsMatter Volume 1 Issue 1, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2009 AAHA.

Copyright © 2009, American Animal Hospital Association

Reprinted with permission from the American Animal Hospital Association.