“Never look a gift horse in the mouth” might be wise advice if you’re dealing with a “gift horse.”
But it sends precisely the wrong message if you’re concerned about the health of your family pet.
Regular inspection and appropriate care of your cat or dog’s teeth and gums in particular will impact not only your pet’s oral health but can spare it from systemic illness and even death.
Dr. Shannon Graham, D.V.M., at BluePearl Specialty Veterinary Care, explained, “Put simply, without the sensitive fingers and opposable thumbs available to humans, cats and dogs use their mouths to accomplish a host of everyday tasks.”
“As a result of their touching so many frequently germ-laden items with their mouths, cats and dogs are particularly susceptible to dental and oral disease, some forms of which can impact other organs, including the kidneys, liver and heart potentially with life-threatening consequences.”
“Veterinarians are skilled at cat and dog dental and oral cleaning and care, usually under sedation, as X-rays and invasive procedures may be required,” Dr. Graham said. “But pet owners can play an important role in maintaining their pets’ oral health in between those major visits to the vet.”
Step No. 1 is regular brushing of your pet’s teeth, always with a veterinarian-approved toothpaste formulated for a cat or a dog. Human toothpaste can be toxic to both. This can initially be dicey, as many animals do not like to be touched in their mouth area. A simple plan is to begin by casually touching them on the face or muzzle to accustom them to your touch.
Once you’ve established a level of confidence, your pet won’t shy away if you approach its mouth.
“Using a toothbrush designed for your animal is best,” Dr. Graham said. “Use it to gently but firmly dislodge the tartar and plaque that can cause periodontal disease, including gingivitis and migration of plaque under the gums often resulting in tooth loss.”
If your pet rejects an “alien” toothbrush, one option is to use a smaller brushing device that slips over the tip of one of your fingers. Some dogs balk even at that, so for them another alternative can be treats formulated to help clean the teeth.
Whatever your brushing regimen, make sure you look closely at the gums, tongue and oral cavity to observe any redness, bleeding or lumps that clearly shouldn’t be there. Look also for any tooth fractures, especially at the tips of your cat’s canine teeth, or “fangs.”
You might also discover an abscess, which Dr. Graham noted is a signal that veterinary treatment is required ASAP because a root canal or extraction and a regimen of antibiotics may be required. There also is the possibility that a lump could be an indicator of oral cancer.
A few external signs that your cat or dog may be suffering from an oral disorder are blood in their saliva, pawing at the mouth area and unexplained weight loss.
But the most common signal that something is amiss in your pet’s mouth is halitosis. That’s right – bad breath.
If your cat or dog’s breath makes you gag so much that you can’t even think of brushing their teeth, it’s time for your veterinarian to take a closer look.
“All the studies show that cats and dogs over the age of 3 are most likely to develop oral disease,” Dr. Graham added. “Although kittens and puppies aren’t exempt.”
“Among both cats and dogs, some breeds are more prone to dental and oral issues, but that possibility has to be weighed against the love and affection shown that drew you to your pet in the first place. It’s just a caution that you should be hypervigilant about their oral health.”
“It may be asking a lot to suggest that you brush your pet’s teeth every day,” Dr. Graham observed. “But that’s just what we teach our children to do, and they at least have the sensitive fingers and thumbs to hold a toothbrush.”
In case you’ve never figured it out, the reason why you’re told to “never look a gift horse in the mouth” is because you’re likely to be offered that free horse in the first place because it has bad teeth.
By Bill Farley