Tooth be Told: Doggie Dental Care Counts

Is your dog’s rabies vaccination up to date? Are you vigilant about heartworm and tick prevention? Do you brush those chompers regularly? Semi-regularly? Ever? Doggie dental care can take a back seat to other health care, but according to Dr. Steve Barghusen, the three most important health areas for dogs are dental, obesity, and behavior. (And many of us have an issue with at least one of those!)


Orion knows the drill. (Photo: Kelly Rae McDuff)

Designated as Pet Dental Care Month, February serves as a reminder to brush up on the dos, don’ts, whats, and whys of doggie dental care, a subject near and dear to us. (Our founder Ali’s Luc, the original Sidewalk Dog, battled mightily with dental disease.) We duly trotted back to the experts — Dr. Kate Knutson and Dr. Steve Barghusen of Pet Crossing Animal Hospital & Dental Clinic — and begged them for a refresher.

The #1 rule might surprise you: do NOT brush your dog’s teeth until they have a clean bill of health from their vet. According to Dr. Kate, the first visit should include charting, probing, full x-rays, cleaning, and polishing of their teeth. Only then is your vet armed with the proper information to establish a baseline for ongoing care. And do this when they’re puppies, if possible. Hidden problems can exist even in young mouths. The x-rays are especially important as you don’t want to start brushing a mouth that is unhealthy and painful or bring hidden pain to the surface. Many dogs will still let you brush, even if it’s painful, and we humans can’t always read the signals they’re sending to tell us it hurts!

Dr. Kate recommends asking how often your vet does dental procedures; whether there’ll be a certified veterinary technician in the procedure room administering anesthesia; if they do full-mouth x-rays; and if you can watch. All of these point to comfort and competence in dental care — whether you actually want to observe or not. Although your loving presence apparently does reduce stress and lower the heart rate of agitated pups, according to Dr. Kate. (Maybe we should flip this model. A pup on our laps might make nitrous unnecessary!)

From there, Dr. Kate says “Brushing is the gold standard.” Brush their teeth daily with an enzymatic toothpaste (her fave is from Virbac), and choose one with the VOHC seal, which certifies it’ll actually remove some of that tartar and reduce gingivitis — and not just money from your wallet. Then supplement with things like water additives, medicated chew treats (Dr. Kate likes C.E.T. chews, but Greenies get the green light, too), and a healthy diet. Some dog food formulas are designed to help with tartar and gingivitis control, and raw food fans know the power of their chosen path.

We learned there are a few no-nos, though. Dr. Kate says many items we owners of mouthy pups and tough chewers choose as double-duty tooth scrubbers are pathways to problems like broken molars and root canals (she’s talkin’ about you, raw marrow bones and Nylabones). Her rule: “If you can’t bend it a little bit, it’s just too hard.” Her recommendation? A food-stuffed frozen Kong. Raw still rocks, as the enzymes are great for many pups’ teeth and overall health, but using (softer) food and bones is simply safer. Dr. Kate does acknowledge there’s a bit of risk/benefit factor, so if you have one of those steely-jawed pals, offer raw marrow bones with eyes wide open (and a plan to deal with potential dental damage).

Not all vets provide thorough dental care (just as your M.D. doesn’t pay much heed to your teeth), so be sure to find one that has been trained in advanced veterinary dentistry. And because high-quality medicine and care comes at a price, Dr. Kate advocates that every dog (and cat) be covered by a pet insurance (she recommends Trupanion). ‘Cause you never know, you know?

Above all, do not ignore this important component of your dog’s health, thinking it’s nothing more than a nice way to deal with d-o-g-g-i-e b-r-e-a-t-h, if you can find the time. Dental care makes a BIG difference in your pup’s quality of life, and when things go wrong in there, everyone suffers. Dr. Kate stresses that “periodontal disease is totally preventable with daily home care” — and there are the doctor’s orders. Plus it’s a great excuse for head-in-the-lap snuggle time!

Many thanks to Dr. Kate Knutson and Dr. Steve Barghusen of Pet Crossing Animal Hospital & Dental Clinic for sharing their wisdom on teeth and sponsoring this post. For more information, please refer to the American Animal Hospital Association’s (AAHA) Dental Care Guidelines, co-authored by Dr. Kate.

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