All about That Brush: The importance of dental care

As a dog owner since the early ‘90s, Linda Romppel of Washington knows a thing or two about caring for senior pets. Still, she says, dental care is one of the most challenging hygiene procedures to make routine. Romppel raises Golden Retrievers, and while the worst dental challenge she’s faced with her 15-year-old Golden is a cracked tooth, she says it’s consistent care that ensures lifelong healthy teeth.

“It’s really easy to walk and feed them every day, but dental care is one of things that’s really hard to maintain as a habit,” adding, “At the same time, it’s really important.”

Few pet parents enjoy sticking their fingers in their pets’ mouths, scrubbing away at plaque while hot doggy breath smacks them in the face. And good luck getting a glimpse of kittty’s pearly whites before she darts for cover.

According to Kevin Stepaniuk DVM, veterinary dentist with Columbia River Veterinary Specialists in Vancouver, it takes a lifetime of good dental hygiene habits to support a pet’s tooth health into the geriatric years. This includes regular brushing (with pet toothpaste) and annual cleanings by a vet. The American Animal Hospital Association says that close to two-thirds of pet owners do not provide vet-recommended dental care.

“The gold standard of care is a dog or cat’s first dental cleaning be in the first one to two years of life,” Stepaniuk says. “Whether you’re a dog or a human, you should be brushing teeth daily to remove the plaque biofilm that causes periodontal disease.”

The nasty film of bacteria that builds up on teeth, if never removed through brushing and cleaning, can slip beneath the gum line and cause all kinds of trouble, Stepaniuk says. Painful, abscessed teeth can necessitate extraction. Along with fractured teeth, periodontal disease is one of the most common dental ailments seen among older dogs.

Senior cats are also susceptible to periodontal disease, as well as a condition called feline tooth resorption, in which tooth cells turn against the tooth.

“They’re progressive, painful processes where teeth are being rejected from the mouth and require extraction,” says Courtney Anders DVM, owner of Pearl Animal Hospital in Portland. The disease can present as teeth that appear broken or to have small red holes that indicate the nerve is exposed.

Anders says tooth care with cats can be tricky. While dogs have a range of options to promote healthy teeth, including dental chews, cats can be less than cooperative for brushing.

“Cats are a species that don’t want to be messed with,” Anders says. She recommends using gauze to gently scrub a cat’s teeth, but adds, “cats hold grudges. If your cat is running from you, it’s not worth ruining the relationship.”

For both cats and dogs, Anders suggests feeding a dental-friendly food. Royal Canin, for example, offers a formula that prevents the accumulation of plaque.

“The more proactive you can be at home, the less frequently you’ll need to have procedures done, and that can be a huge cost savings over the pet’s life,” she says. “A healthier mouth means a healthier animal.”

Stepaniuk says he’s seen elderly dogs and cats act years younger after having dental pain corrected by removing infected teeth. Clients will say their dogs used to jump and flip, and once diseased teeth are gone, they become playful again.

“You can have a whole new dog or cat after tooth extraction,” Anders says. “There can be a huge improvement in personality.”

Both Anders and Stepaniuk stress the importance of yearly dental cleanings for senior pets, since periodontal disease or broken teeth are not always obvious. Anders says this involves a full-day procedure in which pets are examined under anesthesia. Vets take full X-rays to see what’s going on under the gum line and then carefully examine, clean and polish each tooth.

With older pets, Stepaniuk says he often hears concerns from clients about anesthesia. “Age is not an exclusionary factor for doing general anesthesia,” he says. “It can be done safely with monitoring.”

Anders adds that she sees more problems related to bad teeth with clients who are afraid their pet is too old for anesthesia. “What we use is really safe,” she says. “Age isn’t a reason not to pursue dental health.”

Yearly cleanings are important, Stepaniuk says, because pets often don’t exhibit symptoms until dental disease is fairly severe.

“They hide disease very well,” he says. “You might see pawing at the face or reluctance to chew, but with dental problems, unless you’re very astute looking at root exposure, some of the clinical signs are not at all obvious.”

With newly adopted older dogs or cats, Anders suggests getting a dental exam before starting cleaning routines to rule out pre-existing issues.

Romppel says that every time she takes her elderly Goldens to the vet, she has their teeth looked at. Ultimately, she says, it comes down to routine care and cleaning.

Learn more:

American Animal Hospital Association Guidelines for Care:

Amy Schneider is a writer based in Eugene, Oregon, who lives with a dog, a fish, a wonderful partner and an assortment of plants, in no particular order.