Take care of your pet's teeth

If you have a dog or cat and you're reading this, odds are good that you love and care for your pet. But odds are slimmer you know how important dental care is for your furry friend.

February was Pet Dental Health Month. I'd planned on writing last month about my dogs' teet, but the ThursdayFridaySaturday site redesign took priority. That, and the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Aja enjoys a destructive pasttimeMy dogs had their own Winter Olympics in our backyard. Like many pooches in fresh snowfall, they act like little kids on Christmas morning, barely able to contain their joy. Part of this joy included grabbing any sticks protruding from the inches of snow and attempting to destroy them. In spite of the photo, I don't condone this practice, but I don't always prevent it, either, as I tend to concern myself with other potential doggy dental disasters. Bad breath stinks. But aggression, rotting teeth and potential death are worse.

When Aja, one of my two now-9-year-old Husky mixes was about 4 years old, she lashed out aggressively at one of my friends' dogs, a gentle giant of a Lab/Hound mix named Guinness, whom Aja grew up with. She bit the tip of his ear (off), and though it turned out to be but a flesh wound, it was a fearsome action and made me wonder about Aja's sanity and my ability to deal with her from then on. Until that point, she had played with other dogs quite well in a variety of situations. I chalked this one up to the fact that the aggression happened because she was protecting her bone from Guinness and had difficulty getting away from him in the cramped living room.

Shortly thereafter, I took Aja to the vet for her first dental cleaning. He called me after I dropped her off and asked "Does she chew on rocks?" I laughed - like many dogs, she chewed on bones and toys, but not much else (well, aside from my mid-century loveseat a few years prior.) The doc didn't think it was funny - one of Aja's largest molars was cracked lengthwise down the middle and rotted from the inside out. (I still have the tooth and would be happy to post a pic.)

Since that tooth was removed, Aja and her sister, Diva, have each had several other teeth extracted. And though Aja can still be snarly around other dogs, she hasn't injured any like she did that day with Guinness. Part of it may be the fact that I've worked on obedience training with her, but the more likely reason is that she's not suffering in pain. How would you feel if one of your teeth was split in two and decaying from the inside out?

My dogs get CET toothpaste and love itIt was a hard lesson to learn - I still feel guilty about not realizing the pain she was in sooner - but I'm glad I learned it sooner rather than later. Take it from me: if you love your pet, you need to love your pet's teeth almost as much:

  • Read dog and cat food labels. You'll likely be surprised at the number of popular, widely available foods that have pictures of delicious, human-worthy ingredients on the front - and sugar as one of the main ingredients (Purina Beneful, I'm talking to you!) Sugar's not good for human teeth, and it's not good for your pet's, either. (I feed my dogs V-Dog - it's wonderful and they offer free shipping!)
  • Regularly brush your dog's teeth. I don't know how easy it is to do for cats, but my dogs learned the joy of dental gel within a matter of days. Start out slowly, with the toothpaste on your finger for only a few seconds at a time, and you'll see how easy it is - especially when you reward with a tooth-friendly treat afterward. And with delicious doggy dentifrice flavors like CET's enzymatic Poultry or Seafood, how can you go wrong? Don't want to brush 'em yourself? At the very least, ask your vet to professionally clean them once or twice a year.
  • Kong's Air Dog Squeakers are made with dental health in mindCareful with those balls! The typical tennis ball was designed to withstand massive pressure, and it's natural to think they're the perfect toy to withstand a dog's teeth and jaws. But the same materials that make tennis balls so durable make them highly abrasive to the enamel that protects teeth. Most pet-supply stores sell dog-friendly tennis balls. I prefer the Kong kind (Kong makes a variety of other good dental products, too.)
  • Not all dogs are created equal. Aja and Diva don't have the greatest teeth or the greatest breath, and they had issues with their teeth from an early age. Sure, they got into more than their fair share of for-humans-only sweets, but so did our 7-year-old Yellow Lab, Pixie - and in the words of her vet, "Pixie has the teeth of a 3-year-old," even though they weren't professionally cared for until she was five. Dogs are different like people are different, so just because your family's Golden Retriever lived to be 15 and never had his teeth touched, your Labradoodle might be losing teeth at 4, just like Aja.

Dental problems can cause a slew of other problems - the worst being death from related infection. But a little patience, care and common sense can add up to a long, healthy, happy life for your pet - and many more years of unconditional love for you!