Regular dental regimen can prevent major problems
Brushing teeth daily and maintaining good oral hygiene is important, and it is equally vital to look after your pets' teeth and gums.
A friend found out the hard way when he noticed that his cat kept backing away from its food bowl every time it tried to eat. It turns out the cat has periodontitis and has to have all its teeth removed. An expensive exercise.
Periodontitis, a disease of the gum and tissue attaching teeth into sockets of the jaw, is one of the most common dental problems found in pets.
In the early stages, it shows up as redness of the gums, halitosis (bad breath), and tartar buildup, which will appear as a brown, stone-like material.
This progresses to bleeding gums, mouth pain, difficulty eating and eventually the loss of teeth, which either fall out or need to be removed.
'This is essentially a bacteria-related disease that can be prevented by good oral care,' says Gerry Pahl, who specialises in veterinary dentistry for cats, dogs and exotic animals. Dental disease is one of the most widespread ailments affecting pets worldwide, Pahl says, and if it is left untreated, it can also impact the creatures' general well-being and eventually affect the working of their organs. Such a complaint could contribute to kidney and heart disease, and adversely affect the animal's immune system, making it susceptible to a whole range of illnesses, specialists say.
Dental care and oral hygiene for pets is similar to how we care for our own teeth and gums, ranging from brushing teeth to maintaining a good diet.
For cats and dogs, it begins with daily brushing, which should begin when the pet is still a kitten or puppy, as it will adapt to this as part of its daily routine.
Other options include dental treats, and speciality dental diets that can be purchased from vets or pet stores. 'My recommendation would be daily brushing, together with dental chews, two to three times per week,' Pahl says.
When it comes to buying dental-care products sold by pet stores, Pahl says owners should look for those that will 'scrub' the outside of the tooth and gum surface, and effectively remove plaque.
Other options include a dental scale and polish, which is performed under general anaesthetic to remove existing plaque and tartar from the tooth surface.
Owners of exotic animals don't need to brush their pets' teeth, but they do need to ensure that the animal has the appropriate care, as they are still prone to serious dental problems.
Rabbits and chinchillas have teeth that grow throughout their lives, so the appropriate diet is the key to maintaining oral health. 'These species need a high-fibre [grass] diet, which maintains the balance between tooth wear, and tooth growth,' Pahl says.
The teeth of hamsters and other rodents also grow continuously, but as they only have incisors (front teeth), health is maintained by giving them something hard to gnaw on, for example untreated, pesticide-free tree branches or even hard dog biscuits.
Broken teeth are another thing to watch for. While they may cause no problem to the animal, it is best to have them checked, especially in exotic species. Teeth breaking can be quite common in older pets and a special diet may be required.
Pahl advises against giving pets sugar-laden food, including sugary fruits, or food that will stick to the animal's teeth. 'I would suggest owners consult their vet about the best products and practices for dental home care,' he says. Just as dentists advise clients to visit them once or twice a year, to avoid more serious and costly problems in the future, pet owners should also take their animals to a vet for a check-up at least once a year.