Expert Tips: What to know about canine oral health

For dogs and humans alike, oral health is important. Bad breath can ruin more than just a human first date—it can be the difference between adoption and euthanasia for a dog in a shelter. And for dogs with homes, a healthy mouth can still be a matter of life or death, or at least contentment or misery.

February is Pet Oral Health Month, and we spoke to Dr. Alexander Reiter of Philly’s own Penn Vet for some expert information on canine oral and dental health, from maintenance methods and current research to risks and benefits.

Start early and often, be it puppy or senior

Puppies begin losing their baby teeth at about six months old, but that doesn’t mean you need to wait that long before beginning oral care routines, Dr. Reiter said. He advises all new dog owners to start early by gentling their puppies to human touch around and inside of the mouth. Regularly lift your puppy’s lips and examine his gums. This makes it easier for you to brush and for veterinarians to do their job.

He said that veterinarians should be checking your puppy’s teeth at check-ups and vaccination visits. If they aren’t, it can’t hurt to ask. It’s a vet’s job to make sure that your puppy’s adult teeth are all erupting properly.

As for adult dogs, even if you haven’t paid attention to their oral health so far, it’s never too late to start. This is especially true for recently adopted dogs. Like other routines, start early by making oral care part of your new pet’s daily habits. A professional dental cleaning can help your new family member start off on the right foot in your home.

“It makes a dog feel much better if its teeth are taken care of,” Dr. Reiter said.

Consider additional methods, but don’t forget to brush

Nothing beats a toothbrush and toothpaste. While there are additional products on the market for canine oral health, from treats and chews to dental diets, nothing works nearly as well as a daily brushing. Dr. Reiter suggests owners visit the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s website for a list of accepted and effective products.

He also advises owners to be wary of some products that may do more harm than good. Hard nylon bones, for example, may crack the teeth beyond repair, requiring a surgeon to extract them.

When it comes to brushing, Dr. Reiter said there’s no excuse not to. He said it’s an integral part of dog ownership, just as much as feeding and exercise. If you are trying to acclimate your newly adopted dog to brushing, try starting with something a little gentler, like a medical gauze pad. These are a good way to wipe plaque off the surface of the teeth at the end of the day, but can’t work at existing tartar the way a toothbrush can. Once you begin brushing, Dr. Reiter recommends finding one with the softest possible bristles and pairing it with dog-specific toothpaste.

It’s more than just bad breath

Research shows that periodontal disease can have consequences beyond just the mouth, Dr. Reiter said.

“We’re learning now that oral bacteria can enter the bloodstream through gums weakened by periodontal disease. This bacteria then attacks the kidneys, liver, heart, and other organs,” he said. “If your pet already has diabetes or heart disease, do not create more of a burden on those organs with a very dirty mouth.”

Owners may also be adding to the unhealthy environment of their dog’s mouth unwittingly. The bacteria for cavities do not exist naturally in a dog’s mouth, he said. When we share food we’ve eaten with our pets, we’re introducing bacteria that otherwise would not be there. While only about 3 percent of dogs experience cavities, it’s something for owners to consider as we begin living more intimately with our pets.

The whole body benefits of a clean mouth

According to Dr. Reiter, there are five things that determine a dog’s quality of life.

“For a dog to be truly happy, it needs to be able to eat, drink, and groom itself independently. It also needs socialization and to live with little pain,” Dr. Reiter said. “A healthy mouth is integral to all of these things.”

He reminds owners that, in addition to eating, dogs use their teeth to scratch themselves when they groom. They use their teeth to play and interact with other dogs and humans when they socialize. It’s important for them to be able to do all of these things with minimal pain.

“A dog may not show any obvious clinical signs of discomfort. Just like a person, acute periodontal disease happens over years and months, and a dog begins to adjust to living that way,” Dr. Reiter said.

Similarly, owners get used to their dogs’ changing personality and activities. What may seem abnormal for a young dog with healthy teeth may seem normal for an older dog with periodontal disease. But Dr. Reiter says that this perceived normal isn’t always healthy. After extracting diseased teeth from older dogs, he has had many families tell him that their 13 year-old pet is now acting the way she used to.

“‘They tell me, ‘It’s like a miracle, our old dog is like a puppy again.’ Their old dogs begin to become active as they realize they can play and chew without pain,” he said.

Dr. Alexander Reiter is an Associate Professor of Dentistry and Oral Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine

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