When taking on a new puppy or kitten, learning to clean your pet's teeth may not be at the top of your list of priorities. However, this is the ideal time to start getting your new pet used to brushing. Puppies and kittens have the greatest capacity to learn and absorb information before they reach the age of 12 weeks. Introducing a home-care regime for oral hygiene at this age becomes part of their daily routine and can effectively delay the onset of periodontal disease.
Even with adult cats and dogs it is never too late, but the older they are, the less tolerant they may be of having a new regime introduced into their lives. Taking it slowly and introducing each new step very gradually is even more important in older pets.
Cats that have access to the outdoors and are regular hunters, will have a relatively good standard of oral hygiene. By hunting and eating their prey, nature provides cats with a natural toothbrush - fur and feathers - to reduce the build-up of plaque. But it is still advisable to get your cat used to you looking in the mouth anyway, so you can check for signs of a problem. Cats in particular can be stoic, and will often hide the fact that they have a very painful tooth.
Getting your pet used to brushing should be done slowly and by using the positive re-enforcement technique. Do not punish bad behaviour or failure to comply, but reward good behaviour with a treat and praise. Your pet wants to please you, and will hopefully learn to accept brushing, providing each step is taken slowly and gently.
The tongue acts as a fairly efficient toothbrush, so there is no need to attempt to brush the inside of the teeth. The areas to concentrate on are the large cheek teeth (premolars and molars) and the fang teeth (canines).
There are several flavours of pet dentifrice: poultry, malt, mint and seafood. Unlike human toothpaste, it contains no fluoride, doesn't 'froth' and is designed to be swallowed as dogs and cats don't have the ability to spit. When choosing a paste, make sure it is an enzymatic one, as this will increase the effectiveness of the paste and help to break down plaque.
Various sizes of soft brushes are available - specifically designed for cats and dogs. Choosing the right type of brush for your pet's mouth size and shape is imperative.
Puppy and kitten brushes. These have extra soft bristles and small heads to allow for the sensitivity of the juvenile's mouth while they are teething and the gums are particularly tender.
Finger brushes. These are made of soft rubber and are designed to fit over the thumb or forefinger. They have a few soft rubber bristles and are intended to be used as a way of getting the pet used to having a foreign object rubbing against their teeth. However they are quite large and that may cause more resentment in dogs than moving straight on to using a brush. They are too large for use in cats and toy breeds.
Cat brushes. These are very small brushes. The angled bristles are cut almost to a point. They are intended to be used with a painting technique rather than the scrubbing technique used on dogs. As well as cats, they make ideal brushes for toy and miniature breeds such as Yorkshire Terriers, Chihuahuas, and Papillons.
Small headed brushes. Ideal for use in breeds such as West Highland White Terriers, Whippets, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.
Large headed brushes. Suitable for large breed dogs, such as Rottweilers, German Shepherd Dogs, and Labradors.
Double-ended brushes. This is a versatile brush as it has a large head on one end a smaller head on the other end. This is useful for medium sized dogs such as small Collies and Beagles, where using the larger head would be uncomfortable for the dog when trying to clean the molars at the back of the mouth.
There are no hard and fast rules about how long each stage should take. It depends on how well the pet accepts each step. The main thing is not to force the pet. Forcing will cause resentment and fear, as well as putting the person attempting to brush at risk of being bitten, albeit unintentionally on the part of the pet.
With dogs, it is easier to have them in a sitting position. With cats, it is often easier to lift them onto a table, or do it while they are sat on your knee and quite relaxed. Lifting their head back slightly, and positioning your hand (the one you are not using to brush) around the muzzle, prevents them from opening their mouths. Lifting the lip reveals the teeth which are known as a scissor bite. This interlocking formation means that it is possible to brush the lower and upper teeth with the same brush stroke. The larger teeth at the back of the mouth will not be easily viewable, so the toothbrush must be slotted in between the cheek and teeth and pushed as far to the back as possible. You may find it easier to move position to brush the second side of the mouth, after doing the first. If they can open their mouths, they will often attempt to chew the brush or lick all the paste from the brush!
For maximum efficiency in the delay of periodontal disease, brushing should be done on a daily basis. Different types of enzymatic 'activation' time of pastes by saliva mean the length of time spent on brushing each side will vary. Often the cat pastes need only 30 seconds in the mouth, whereas some of the dog ones can take up to three minutes.
It is the mechanical effect of brushing that is of most benefit, but how much you can actually manage it is usually dictated by the length of time your pet will happily tolerate it.
Step one - Gently pet and stroke the muzzle, slowly lifting the upper lip for about 30 seconds. Allow your pet to sniff and lick a small amount of toothpaste from the end of your finger. Reward with praise and a treat at the end of the session.
Step two - Repeat as above and also gently run your finger with a small amount of toothpaste over the pet’s teeth for 30–45 seconds. Reward with praise and a treat.
Step three - Repeat step two, adding 15 seconds time to running your finger (or a finger brush, in larger dogs) over the pet’s teeth. Always reward with a treat.
Step four - If all is going well, run your finger over the teeth for 30 seconds and then gently insert the toothbrush and again run over the teeth for 30 seconds.
Step five - Repeat as step four and increase the time by 30 seconds.
Step six - Repeat as step five and gently scrub your pet's teeth.
Step seven - If you feel that your pet is accepting brushing well, increase the brushing time until you are able to spend at least one minute on each side of the mouth.
If at any time your pet resists, stop and wait until the next day before trying again, repeating previous steps if necessary.
Once you have become quite adept at brushing, try to use a rotating brush action on the large teeth at the back of the mouth and the fang teeth.
Be patient. Take time with each stage or your pet may become resentful.
Lots of praise and rewards are very important. They will help your pet to see teeth cleaning as a positive experience.
You only need a pea-sized amount of toothpaste on the brush. Reload the brush for each side of the mouth.
Human toothpaste must never be used for pets. Always use enzymatic toothpaste made especially for dogs and cats.
Brushing should be as much fun as possible for your pet. If your pet resists or shows signs of aggression contact a vet for advice, as there may a reason (other than dislike) that your pet finds it uncomfortable, such as gingivitis or more advanced periodontal disease.
For a practical demonstration and more advice on brushing, contact your local veterinary centre.
Alternatives to Brushing
For practical reasons it may not be possible to brush your pet's teeth. You may have adopted a dog or cat from a rescue centre and the animal may not have been treated well in the past. This could make the pet head shy1. Owners with a disability, or the elderly may have difficulty with managing to brush their pet's teeth.
A number of products are available to help with maintaining oral hygiene for these situations. While these products are extremely useful, nothing is as effective as daily brushing to delay the onset of periodontal disease.
The most important aspect of dental care and oral maintenance is your choice of diet. Cat and dog jaws are designed to kill their prey with the front teeth (canines and incisors) and to devour it with their cheek teeth (premolars and molars). In the wild, the skin, hair and tough fibrous flesh acts as an effective toothbrush for the outside surfaces of the cheek teeth. This is known as the scrub effect and is combined with a high flow of saliva, which helps keep the oral cavity clean.
Soft, sticky canned diets have several faults. Firstly, they add to the soft sticky matrix that is the basis of dental plaque. Secondly, they do not contribute to the scrub effect on the tooth surface as it is swallowed in a ball without even touching any teeth! Thirdly, because of their soft nature, the dog or cat does not need to produce much saliva to swallow them. For cats the use of a mixture of approximately 70% dry to 30% canned food is preferred due to their unique problem of neck lesions (Feline Odontoclastic Resorptive Lesions).
The use of complete dry pellet type diets, or specially designed semi-soft diets to aid in dental care is recommended. This new diet allows the tooth to enter the biscuit without shattering it, unlike traditional dry pet foods that shatter immediately. As the tooth leaves the biscuit, the tooth surface is cleaned then it is crunched and can be digested. The diet is designed so that each kibble will allow the tooth to penetrate deeper before it shatters, so deposits of plaque and debris are wiped from the tooth surface, helping to prevent problems such as halitosis and dental disease.
Pets should never be fed human titbits as treats. The dental diet kibbles can be used as a biscuit. For training and reward purposes they make a tasty treat and have the benefit of helping to keep your pet's teeth clean too.
Owners of pets on special diets should discuss any change with their veterinary surgeon first.
One or two rawhide strips per day helps considerably with the maintenance of oral hygiene. They produce a lot of saliva and because they need so much chewing it helps remove any plaque build-up on the teeth. Always watch your pet with rawhide chews, as if large pieces are swallowed they may need a visit to the vet to have them surgecially removed.
Also available are specially designed chews that are shaped to make the dog chew using all surfaces of their teeth. They are very hard and made of compacted milk and rice. If you are using them, you should reduce your dog's daily food ration appropriately.
A chlorhexidine rinse, gel and paste are available although it isn't very palatable. This is used in some cases to promote healing and reduce the accumulation of plaque bacteria. It is mostly used after surgery, but some pets may suffer with oral disease that requires regular use. A veterinary surgeon will let you know if your pet requires this.
Toothpaste to Mix with Food
A paste that can be added to food as an alternative to brushing is available. However it is not very effective as this avoids brushing and the scrub effect of stimulating saliva production.
A Note about Bones
Giving dogs bones has long been seen as a way to help keep teeth clean, as well as a nice treat. However, most veterinary surgeons now recommend that they aren't given bones. They do help clean teeth, the chewing increases saliva production and helps to remove any plaque build-up on the teeth. Unfortunately they can cause other problems.
Norman Johnston BVM&S FAVD DipAVDC DipEVDC MRCVS is a Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons' specialist in Veterinary Dentistry. He says:
'Bones are not recommended. Dog jaws are not designed to crunch bones. The result is broken teeth, splinters in the stomach and either constipation or diarrhoea depending on whether the marrow or the cartilage on the knuckle has been swallowed.'
However, there are many people feeding a 'Bones and Raw Food' diet with no ill effects. Readers should do their own research, speak to their vet and other owners, and make their own decision.