The Pet Connection: Brushing your loved one’s teeth

Keeper did not want me to even lift his lip to look at his teeth, and his breath was terrible. It had been only six months since his last dental exam and cleaning, but clearly something was wrong. Turns out that not only did he have an abscessed tooth, but dental X-rays also showed a large amount of bone resorption, a bone remodeling process that invades the tooth structure.

It’s normal when it involves the loss of baby or puppy teeth, but veterinarians are seeing it more often in the permanent teeth of dogs. Keeper had to have three teeth removed.

Keeper’s experience is just one of the reasons that veterinarians are adding dental X-rays to the professional cleaning process. His veterinarian, Gershon L. Alaluf, DVM, explains: “When you look at a dog’s teeth and see tartar, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t tell you what’s going on underneath the gum line. Usually there’s infection, and on dental X-rays we can see pockets of infection, plus root resorption and bone resorption.”

Oral and dental disease are by far the most common problems affecting dogs and cats. By the time they are 3 years old, 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats have some form of gum disease. Tartar isn’t just ugly; combined with bad breath, it’s a signal that your pet’s teeth and gums are probably infected, painful or both. Other signs include difficulty eating, constant drooling and lethargy.

Unfortunately, dogs and cats can’t tell us that their mouth hurts, so all too often they go without treatment because a professional cleaning is considered cosmetic rather than medically important. But oral bacteria don’t affect just the mouth. Over time, they can cause infections that enter the bloodstream and spread throughout the body, damaging organs such as the heart, liver and kidneys.

What can you do?

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Brushing is the No. 1 way to help keep dental disease at bay. If you start when your puppy or kitten is young, he’ll get used to it and accept it more readily. Here are some options to prevent tooth decay if your pet says “no way” to brushing:

▪  Wipe the teeth with a moist gauze pad or dental wipe. That can help to remove the plaque that hardens into tartar.

▪ Ask your veterinarian about gels, rinses or sprays that contain chlorhexidine or zinc ascorbate cysteine (ZAC) compounds. The enzymes in chlorhexidine products dissolve plaque and help reduce bacteria, and ZAC compounds encourage collagen production to stimulate repair of gum tissue.

▪  Lay in a supply of tartar-control chews and toys (available for dogs and cats) that contain enzymes to help reduce plaque.

▪  Cut back on the daily skinny vanilla lattes and put the cost toward your pet’s dental care. At $3.25 a pop, you can save more than enough over a year’s time to cover the cost of a cleaning and any necessary extractions. An annual professional cleaning that gets below the gum line can help ensure that dental problems are found early and treated, which saves you money and saves your pet unnecessary discomfort. Even better, you may find that once his mouth doesn’t hurt anymore, your pet is acting young again.

The buzz

▪ A Russian cat named Masha found an abandoned infant and saved his life by curling up with him to keep him warm and then meowing loudly to attract attention. Thinking the cat had been hurt, a woman went out to check on her and found the baby, who it was later determined was in good health despite his exposure to the cold. The long-haired tabby cat, who lives in the Russian city of Obninsk, doesn’t belong to anyone, but people in the neighborhood feed her and watch over her. Masha has been getting lots of all her favorite foods.

▪ How often should you bathe your dog? Most dogs can get by with monthly baths, but weekly is better if they spend a lot of time on your furniture or bed or suffer from environmental allergies, which are caused by absorption of dust, pollen and mites into the skin. If you use a mild shampoo and conditioner and rinse well, even a daily bath is fine.

Q: Our 11-year-old standard poodle is no longer willing to jump in and out of the backseat of my Honda CR-V. It might have something to do with him not being as agile as he used to be, but is probably more about his losing his vision due to cataracts. I’m thinking of buying a ramp for him. Do you have any advice on what to look for in one and how to teach him to use it?

Via Facebook

A: A ramp is a great idea. Look for one that’s sturdy, stable and can fold up for transport. It should have a nonskid surface so your dog’s paws will have something to grip, making him less likely to slip or jump off the side. If you have a trailer hitch, you can find steps that will connect to it, swinging out for use and folding up after. To find products, do Web searches for “dog ramp” or “trailer hitch dog step,” or check online retailers such as or

Because a ramp’s incline varies depending on the object it’s resting on, it’s easy to gradually adjust the incline as your dog learns to use it. Begin by placing the ramp on a flat, stable area where it won’t slide. Lure your dog across the ramp with a treat. Give treats for putting a paw on the ramp, then for two paws.

Gradually move the treat toward the middle of the ramp. The goal is to have your dog follow the treat in your hand from one end of the ramp to the other. Once he goes across the ramp on flat ground, add a slight incline and continue practicing. Have him go back and forth, up and down. Add a verbal cue, such as “up” or “in.” Soon, he should be using it like a pro.

Dr. Becker can be found at

DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.