Every day, Lenin Villamizar-Martinez makes sure that he and his dog Lola exercise a lot and do one other thing: brush their teeth.
“It has been scientifically proven that daily brushing of dogs‘ and cats’ teeth is best practice,” said Villamizar-Martinez, assistant professor of dentistry and oral surgery at North Carolina State University. “Just like humans, when you brush your teeth every morning, you remove plaque.”
Plaque forms within 24 hours and hardens into tartar in about three days, which is why “daily home care to remove plaque is so important,” says dental veterinarian Brook A. Niemiec, co-author of the 2020 World Small Animal Veterinary Association, or WSAVA , Global Dental Guidelines.
Left untreated, tartar can cause gum disease and lead to other health problems in cats and dogs, ranging from tooth loss to heart and kidney disease. According to studies cited in the 2020 WSAVA Guidelines, approximately 90% of all dogs by the age of 1 year have gum disease and approximately 70% of cats by the age of 3 years.
Some dogs — mostly small breeds, as well as Greyhounds and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels — are particularly prone to dental problems, Niemiec says. For this reason, dogs that weigh less than 10 pounds should have their teeth professionally cleaned by the time they are 1 year old, he says. Without that and daily brushing, he says, “it’s not uncommon for small dogs to lose all their teeth by the age of 4.”
Dental veterinarians recommend introducing daily tooth brushing in the first few months of life. Always be gentle — never force a pet to brush their teeth — and make it a game, says Villamizar-Martinez.
His dog Lola was 5 years old when he adopted her. She already had some dental problems. So at first he used gauze dampened with tap water to rub her teeth and gums every day for two to three weeks. Next he had her sniff the dog toothpaste. Then he slowly introduced a toothbrush over a couple of weeks. Now, he says, she loves getting her teeth brushed every morning.
There are many types of pet toothbrushes, but Jennifer Tjepkema, a veterinary dentist at the Animal Dental Center in Annapolis, Maryland, recommends only using a child’s soft-bristled toothbrush for pets. Every three months, she lets her kids choose new toothbrushes for themselves and their dogs, “most of which have superheroes on them,” she says.
Skip the pet electric toothbrush, Waterpik, and human toothpaste. Tjepkema says vibrations from the electric toothbrush might scare them. Pets can also breathe water into their lungs from the Waterpik, which can also cause gum damage in dogs and cats. Human toothpaste can be toxic to pets.
Chews, toys and dietary supplements can also help to counteract dental problems. The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) lists pet dental products for dogs and cats whose manufacturers have submitted studies demonstrating safety and efficacy before the VOHC issues its seal of approval.
The latest veterinary dental guidelines also recommend annual professional tooth cleaning, which must be carried out by a veterinarian under general anesthesia. Dental X-rays are also taken to measure the jawbone and look for cysts and tumors. The cost is about $1,400. Most pet insurance policies do not cover this.
Small breed dogs may need this professional exam and cleaning annually, beginning at 1 to 2 years of age. Larger breeds may not need this yearly cleaning until they are older, but should be checked out by a vet annually, say veterinary dental experts.