By Dr. Andy Roark | January 7, 2013

Mrs. Griffith sighed as she gently separated her youngest daughter and oldest Labrador Retriever. She stepped between them and over a discarded pacifier to look me directly in the eye. “Really?” she asked. “Do you brush your dog’s teeth every day?”

It was a moment of truth. She didn’t ask me what I recommend. She asked me what I do.

The best thing for her dog’s dental health is a daily tooth brushing with pet-safe enzymatic toothpaste. Unfortunately, the problem with my being a real person — one with a working spouse, young children, two jobs and a few hobbies — is that what I know to be “the best thing” and what I actually do at home are occasionally not the same. Mrs. Griffith had a lot on her plate at home, too, and when she asked me for honesty, my credibility was on the line. I wasn’t going to lie to her, and I’m not going to lie to you either.

I know exactly how dental disease affects pets. I know that the dental tartar you see slowly building up on your pet’s teeth is about 80 percent bacteria and that it damages the gums, the bone beneath and the ligaments that hold teeth in place. This bacteria can gain access to the blood stream and infect vital organs like the heart, lungs and kidneys. I also know that advanced dental disease hurts; it makes pets feel sick. Daily brushing is the best deterrent.

But like 95 percent of pet owners, I don’t regularly brush my dog’s teeth, even though I know it’s the best thing for his health. Still, that doesn’t mean dental health isn’t on my mind. Here’s what I do instead:

Professional Dental Cleanings

This is item No. 1 because if we’re not going to brush our pets’ teeth, then we need to get comfortable with the fact that this procedure will be necessary. We humans brush our teeth twice daily and still get our teeth professionally cleaned every six to 12 months. Imagine how vital that cleaning would be if we never brushed! Even with regular brushing, our pets may need periodic professional dental cleanings.

The idea of bacteria from my best friend’s mouth staging a flash mob in one of his vital organs is unacceptable to me. So I scale and polish his teeth whenever dental tartar accumulates. For my dog, that means an annual cleaning at the veterinary clinic. For other pets, it can be much more or less frequent.

The downside: Because the procedure involves full anesthesia to allow a thorough cleaning, the price is much more than a few tubes of toothpaste. Still, if we don’t want our pets to suffer from the effects of dental disease, we have little choice other than to make room for these expenses in the budget.

Put Food to Work

Feeding a high-quality food, avoiding table scraps and using treats that are specially formulated to keep teeth healthy are all easy steps you can take to support dental health. In some cases, your veterinarian might recommend a special dental health diet.

Remember Your Pet Is Unique

Recently, I did an oral examination on a Chihuahua named Taco Larry, whose teeth had been cleaned in our clinic eight months earlier. I looked at Larry’s owner with a pained expression on my face. “Again?” he asked. I nodded. He stammered, “But … my other dog has never had his teeth cleaned, and his are fine!”

The amount of dental maintenance required to keep a pet healthy varies among individuals and also among breeds. Know that your pet’s mouth, just like your pet, is unique, and resign yourself to providing the care that mouth needs. Ask your veterinarian for guidance on the specific needs of your pet.

Never Give Up the Goal

Even though daily tooth brushings simply don’t seem to get done in my house, I don’t give up the dream. I recommit regularly to making it a routine. But even if that dream is never realized, even if I fall short of brushing those handsome little teeth a few times per week, I am always going to aspire to daily brushing. Because no matter how hectic our lives are, effort directed at making our pets healthier and happier is never wasted.

Don’t know where to start with brushing? Learn about brushing your dog’s teeth and cat’s teeth, as well as more about the effects of periodontal disease.

Now you and Mrs. Griffith know the shameful truth: I am a veterinarian who does not regularly brush my pet’s teeth. If you don’t either, you’re not alone. Let’s at least agree that dental health is important and commit to doing the best we can for our pets. We owe it to those who don’t have thumbs for holding their own toothbrushes.

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