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, many 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, petting 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 dentistry under anesthesia. The procedure takes 45 minutes to an hour, and involves cleaning, polishing, and 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 danger 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 also 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 water from some canned tuna.
-- 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.
February, incidentally, is National Pet Dental Health month. No, not degreed by an act of Congress, but rather by the American Veterinary Dental Society, which has been using this month as an opportunity to educate for the last decade. According to the AVDS, 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats show signs of oral disease by age 3, making education a worthwhile effort. For more information on this topic, visit the campaign's Web site at www.petdental.com. The site has a question-and-answer section along with pet trivia and special features for children.
PETS ON THE WEB
Love dog noses? Then you'll love DogNose Heaven (www.dognoses.com), which may well be the only Web site in the world dedicated to the presentation of dog nose images. The site offers an amazing array of images, some quite well done, all likely to give you a smile. The site offers galleries of even more dog nose images sent in by visitors. (Don't expect to see your dog up there anytime soon, however, since it appears the site hasn't been updated for a long time.) For more animal nose images, click on the "Animal Nose Web Ring" link, where you'll find nose pictures of everything from coho salmon to yaks.
If you purchase a purebred puppy or kitten, make sure you get all the paperwork at the time you take your new family member home. You should get a form that will allow you to apply for registration from a national organization such as the American Kennel Club or the Cat Fanciers' Association. You should also get a pedigree (a chart of the animal's ancestors) and health records.
If you don't get the paperwork, the breed registries will try to help with registration matters if you contact them. But in most cases they can't do much, since people rarely have enough information on the breeder or the animal's parents to get the matter cleared up.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: My husband and I are close to purchasing a new motor coach. We hope to travel with our Persian cat, Chloe. She is strictly an indoor cat, but she does travel to and from the groomer, sometimes without a carrier, and doesn't seem to mind the moving vehicle. Our concern is how will she take this change at age 5 1/2. We've been told by her vet that she should be OK as long as we're with her, but obviously there will be an adjustment period.
The main reason for the purchase is because we no longer want to leave her at home. She's part of the family, and it would be much better if she's with us. In the beginning, we'll probably be out for approximately two weeks at the most. -- S.P., via e-mail
A: I predict Chloe will be just fine, since she's already comfortable with movement and road noises.
When I spent a winter in a resort area in Florida, I met all kinds of "snowbirds" -- refugees from the frigid north who were traveling in their motor coaches. It seemed as if a majority of these folks had pets with them -- dogs, cats, birds and even a ferret. These were wonderfully happy pets, who got to be with their people almost all the time.
My biggest concern would be that Chloe have a place to potty where she feels comfortable. That's because a cat who's unhappy with her litter box -- type, location or filler -- won't use it. That's a problem in any household, but in the limited space of a motor coach, a cat who won't use the litter box would be a real problem. Try to find a space where she won't feel likely to be ambushed -- a cupboard with an access hole cut out might be ideal. I know you'll be keeping the box clean in such tight quarters, so I don't need to lecture you on that.
Cats love for things to be routine, so do your best to make your rolling home familiar to Chloe. Is there a throw your cat loves to sleep on? Bring it. Are you feeding her at regular times? Keep the same schedule.
Finally, be sure to keep a collar and tag on your cat, because there's always a chance she might slip out, and make sure your cell number is prominent.
Q: Don't get me wrong: I'm very fond of dogs. But I'm tired of finding "presents" in my front yard. I don't know why people don't understand that it's more than rude to let a dog "go" on someone's property -- it's trespassing! Would you please tell your readers to keep their dogs at home? That's what back yards are for! -- G.N., via e-mail
A: Leaving dogs at home isn't advisable, but picking up after them should be the law. Dogs need walks for both physical and mental reasons, and studies have shown that walking a dog is good for the owner as well.
That said, I have never understood why people who would never think of throwing an empty drink container on someone's lawn allow a dog to leave behind something a million times more vile.
It's easy to scoop! For small dogs, plastic sandwich bags with flip-over tops work great. For large dogs, plastic grocery bags will handle things nicely. Empty bags are easy to slip into a pocket, and using them will allow cleanups without touching the mess.
Dog lovers: Don't neglect this important part of being a responsible and considerate dog lover. Your neighbors deserve better.
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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