Let me get this out of the way up front: Yes, I do brush my pets' teeth.
I really do.
I believe the task is too important to ignore, and so, too, are regular veterinary dental examinations and cleanings as recommended under anesthesia.
That's why one of my own older dogs went under recently, coming out of anesthesia safely with a couple fewer teeth, but healthier teeth and gums overall.
Does this make you feel guilty? That's not my intent. My goal is to show that I practice what I preach because I believe good dental care is essential not only to your pet's health, but also to its quality of life. Broken, rotting teeth and infected gums make pets miserable, and I can't tell you how many times I've opened a pet's mouth in an exam room to see gums so inflamed they look as if a blowtorch had been passed over them.
A situation like that is what should make someone feel guilty.
The problems – and the guilt – are easily avoided. Your veterinarian is ready to get you on the right track.
First thing to remember: Foul-smelling breath from your dog or cat is never normal. It's a symptom of disease you need to heed.
Second thing: Brushing is easier than you think it will be. Approach the task with a positive attitude, take it slowly and easy, and then follow with something the pet likes – a play session or a food treat.
For kittens and puppies, the focus is on training and prevention, but adult pets will likely need veterinary attention before a preventive-care program can help. Your veterinarian should check your pet's mouth, teeth and gums as part of the regular examination, and make recommendations based on what he or she finds there.
For many pets, the next step will be a complete dentistry under anesthesia. The procedure takes 45 minutes to an hour, and involves not only cleaning and polishing the teeth, but also checking for and treating broken or rotting teeth, cavities, abscesses and periodontal disease.
This is a medical procedure, not a cosmetic one, which is why it's not the same as those "no-anesthesia" cleanings offered by non-veterinarians.
I recognize that people worry about anesthesia, but the benefits outweigh the risks. Today's anesthetics are dramatically safer than those of even a few years ago, making the dangers and pain of untreated dental problems the bigger risk to health, even with older pets like my own dog Quixote.
After the problems are treated, at-home care can keep things in good shape.
Here are some tips:
Brush regularly: Use a toothpaste designed for dogs or cats a couple of times a week, at least, although daily is better.
If you absolutely cannot brush, ask your veterinarian about dental rinses that can help prevent dental problems. They're usually not as good as brushing, but they can help.
The diet: Discuss your pet's diet with your veterinarian. Some pet-food companies offer kibble with a mild abrasive texture to help keep teeth clean, or with ingredients that help keep plaque from forming.
Toys for teeth: Offer tooth-safe toys to help with oral health. Again, talk to your veterinarian. You'll want to avoid chews so hard they can break a tooth, and you may want to consider those impregnated with enzymes to help prevent plaque buildup.
Once your pet's teeth are in good shape, you'll notice an end to bad breath. The true benefits of dental care go far beyond a better- smelling mouth, however, making what seems like an aesthetic issue one that is in fact a cornerstone of a preventive-care program.
February is Pet Dental Health Month. During the month, your veterinarian may be able to provide special information on your pet's dental care or have special offers on services.