When I first started writing about the importance of taking care of a pet's teeth, the response I most often heard was one of astonishment. "I'm supposed to brush my dog's teeth?" pet lovers would say. "You're kidding, right?"
These days, pet lovers respond not with surprise, but with guilt. "I know I should brush my pet's teeth, but I don't because my cat won't put up with it," they say. Or they don't have time, or they forget.
And so ignorance becomes guilt. Now that's progress! And the next step: good dental health from the very beginning.
Veterinarians now recommend training kittens and puppies to accept having their teeth brushed, a job that's not really that hard even with older dogs and cats. Approach the task with a positive attitude, take it slow and easy, and then follow with something the pet likes -- a play session or even a food treat.
For kittens and puppies, the focus is on training and prevention, but adult pets may need veterinary attention before a preventive-care program can help. Your veterinarian should check your pet's mouth, teeth and gums during the annual physical, and make recommendations based on what he or she finds there. For many pets, that'll mean a complete dentistry under anesthesia. The procedure takes 45 minutes to an hour, and involves not only cleaning and polishing the teeth, but also checking for and treating broken or rotting teeth, cavities, abscesses and periodontal disease.
Today's anesthetics are dramatically safer than even a few years ago, making the dangers and pain of untreated dental problems the bigger risk to health, even with older pets.
After the problems are treated, at-home care can keep things in good shape. Here are some tips:
-- Brush or wipe the teeth regularly. Use a toothpaste designed for dogs and cats a couple of times a week at least, although daily is better.
Salt or baking soda isn't recommended because too much of the salt gets swallowed, and with small pets that could be a problem. Toothpaste for people is likewise out, because animals don't know how to rinse and spit. Pet toothpastes contain enzymes that help dissolve plaque and don't need to be rinsed. They also have a flavor pets appreciate.
Use a children's soft toothbrush or one made especially for pets. You can also use plain gauze wrapped around a finger or a fingertip brush. Some vets suggest that gauze may work better with cats, especially if dipped in tuna or clam juice first.
-- Switch to dry food and offer teeth-cleaning toys. Some pet-food companies now offer kibble with a mild abrasive texture to help keep teeth clean. You might ask your vet about these if tartar buildup is a chronic problem for your pet.
Soft chew toys and a chew rope can help keep teeth clean, too. Avoid chews that are hard or are prone to breaking into sharp pieces. These can break teeth or slice gums.
My own perspective on good dental care comes from my oldest dog, Andy, who'll be 14 in June. Although I admit I've been sporadic with the brushing over the years, I've made sure Andy has had dental cleanings under anesthesia on an annual basic well into his senior years. Instead of the smelly painful mess of a mouth that so many older dogs have, Andy has a every tooth he was born with, all in fine shape. No doggy breath, no problems eating. He's a healthy, happy dog, despite his advanced age.
Andy is the first of my dogs to get the best of preventive health care from the day he was born, and it shows.
PETS ON THE WEB
The best pet dental site on the Web belongs to Florida veterinarian Dr. Jan Bellows. His All Pets Dental Web site (www.dentalvet.com) is astonishing in the breadth of information offered. Bellows offers detailed explanations and lots of pictures of every way that dog and cat teeth should fit together and all the ways they don't. And he's also got details of everything else that could possibly go wrong -- missing teeth, extra teeth, broken teeth, rotting teeth, and a whole lot of nasty things that can happen to gums, too. Here's a tip: Don't look at the periodontal section around mealtime (yuck!).
Predators always consider the possibility that something new in their environment may be edible. Prey animals have to figure the addition's something that could eat them. Is it any wonder that pets such as birds and rabbits, both of whom are considered a tasty mouthful by many creatures in the wild, may not react with enthusiasm to changes in the world around them? These pets may initially fear new toys, new cages or new foods. Even though your pet may be slow to warm up to new things, don't hesitate to introduce him to fresh experiences and variety. Just proceed slowly, and with an understanding of his take on change.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We have a problem in our neighborhood with loose dogs, some of whom are unfriendly. My golden and I like to take a walk after dinner, and I worry about dealing with these dogs. My dog's very friendly, but I want to be ready if she gets attacked. I need to know what's the best way to break up a dogfight. -- G.L., via e-mail
A: Anyone who has ever walked a dog has experienced that terrifying moment when a vicious, unleashed dog seems intent on doing harm to your pet. It's a dangerous situation even for owners of big dogs; for small dogs, it could be a fatal encounter.
While the best strategy is to avoid dogs who appear aggressive -- with erect body stances instead of the relaxed, ears-back attitude of a dog coming over to play -- sometimes there's no escape from a dominant dog. If the other dog's owner is nearby, demand that he put his canine terrorist on leash. You might have to be very forceful about this: People with aggressive dogs often live in a world of denial, failing to recognize the signs of danger in their own pets.
Aggressive dogs start by sniffing, and you can short-circuit their behavior by blocking the places on your dog that are most inviting. Bring your dog into a close sitting position facing you, and whirl your leash to distract and frighten the other dog. An angry yell may also stall the other dog -- and attract the help you need.
If a fight starts, stay out of it. Tough advice, I know, but you could be badly hurt. If you're willing to risk a bite and there's another person to help, pull the dogs apart by their tails, not their collars! If there's a hose nearby, hitting the dogs in chops with a high-volume water spray will usually stop the action.
Be sure to check your dog over for injuries when you're safely clear of the scene, and don't forget to call your local animal-control department to get the aggressive animal picked up. If there's a dog in your neighborhood who's always out, enlist your neighbors' help in complaining to authorities. By getting the dog removed you could well save the life of a pet -- or even a child!
Q: We have an outdoor Persian who is just one big mat. Any tips on getting his coat back in shape? -- A.R., via the Internet
A: Your letter contains two words that really don't belong next to each other: "outdoor" and "Persian." While long hair may have originally developed in cats as a protection against the elements, the silky coat of the modern Persian itself needs protection. These lush coats are a mat waiting to happen.
It's cruel to comb out a full-body mat, and I doubt your cat will put up with any of your attempts to do so. When coat problems get out of hand, the kindest thing to do is have the fur cut short -- and resolve to take good care of it as it grows back in. A professional groomer with cat experience is the best choice.
You can fix a single mat by working cornstarch into it and then slicing through it lengthwise once or twice with scissors. You should then be able to pick apart the mat gently and avoid the hideous appearance caused by hacking out the entire mess at the base.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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