Does My Dog Really Need a Dental Cleaning?

My dental visits typically involve a lengthy tooth cleaning and a solemn lecture on the importance of flossing. Each visit, I vow to change my wicked ways, and offer a few feeble excuses as to how I managed to fall off the wagon once again.

“It’s OK,” my hygienist always says, scheduling the next appointment. “You keep us in business.”

Nothing truly changes behavior like a punch in the pocketbook. In addition to sky-high dental bills, poor dental hygiene can lead to gum disease, tooth loss and even heart disease — and these issues are not limited to people. Pets also risk a shorter life span when dental care lapses. My goal from now on is shorter dental visits for me and my dog Lulu. Here are a few essentials that will help you save time and money caring for your pet’s pearly whites.

Vet cleanings involve more than floss and fluoride

In a 2010 study by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA), about 25 percent of dog owners had purchased dental products within the past year. While 32 percent of dog owners said they brushed their pets’ teeth, most did so only a few times a year — not enough to truly make an impact. Over time, that tartar buildup requires professional care at the veterinarian’s office. Your vet will begin by assessing the degree of gum disease, ranging from stage 1 through stage 4, before scheduling a cleaning.

At stage 1, you may notice some tartar or plaque buildup. Stage 2 indicates tartar, plaque buildup and severe gingivitis, along with bleeding and inflammation along the gum line. At stage 3, there may be gingival recession, but the effects of periodontal disease may still be reversible. At stage 4, pets suffer from severe gingival recession, root exposure, mobile teeth and even tooth loss. The price difference between a stage 1 cleaning and a stage 4 cleaning can be $1,000 or more.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t take really good care of their pet’s teeth,” says DeAndre Upton, a registered veterinary technician with Eagle’s Landing Veterinary Hospital in Georgia. “When owners come in and say, ‘My dog needs their teeth cleaned,’ [pets] are at a stage 3, stage 4.”

On the day of their dental cleaning, pets should show up with an empty stomach. After taking X-rays and performing blood work to assess your pet’s health, vets will administer an IV and sedate the animal before scaling and polishing teeth. (Check out this video of the process.) Costly tooth extractions may be necessary, depending on the severity of gum disease. A fluoride treatment finishes the process. After all that drama, it’s essential to keep those pearly whites healthy with regular brushing, chews and perhaps even a special diet that incorporates enzymes that break down tartar above the gum line.

Administer an ounce of prevention — daily carries nearly 2,000 products — ranging from chews to water additives — that help improve your pet’s dental health. According to the APPMA, toothbrushes, tartar control products, pet toothpaste and breath control products are purchased most. But Dr. Joey Frasier of Eagle’s Landing Animal Hospital says it pays to keep it simple. Start by rubbing a soft washcloth, an old toothbrush or even a paper towel along the exterior gum line and help your pet get acclimated to the process. Follow with plenty of water, lots of praise and a promise to repeat regularly.

“My dogs sit by the door of the bathroom and watch me brush my teeth,” says Ginna Stephenson of Park Pet Supply in Atlanta. “They know when it’s their time, and I make it a treat for them.”

To make brushing a bit more palatable, Stephenson suggests flavored pet toothpaste to Park Pet customers. In addition to chicken or beef flavors, she says that malt-flavored versions work well for cats. Look for pastes that include enzymes to break down the yucky stuff if your pet suffers from tartar buildup.

“Things have evolved over the years,” says Mary Ellen Burgoon of Park Pet Supply. “This isn’t your father’s dog paste.”

She suggests dental rinses, which can be added to the water bowl, if pets don’t tolerate brushing. Stephenson often leads frazzled cat owners to oral care powder that can be added to food or an oral gel solution, which mixes with saliva to break down plaque along the gum line.

Since most dogs enjoy chewing anything within reach, it’s a little easier to control plaque and tartar buildup. Lulu is partial to rock-hard Nylabones. Stephens also steers clients to all-natural options such as deer antlers, bones or bully sticks as alternatives to rawhide chews, which frequently end up on recall lists due to salmonella. She says that rock hard Himalayan Churpi Chews, made from yak milk, salt and lime juice, have quickly become a cult favorite among customers. But Burgoon cautions that all pets should be monitored while using chews because all products pose a potential choking risk.

In a previous column, I offered a few natural remedies for bad doggie breath. It also helps to add fruits such as apples or veggies like carrots to your dog’s diet, giving teeth a good workout while tummies fill up on low-fat snacks.

Remember, don’t forget to brush!