by Donald L. Ross, D.V.M., M.S.,
Diplomat, American College of Veterinary Dentistry

Animal dentistry has made major advances in the last 20 years and veterinarians can now offer services similar to those available for people. Knowing about your pet’s normal dental development in different life stages can aid in problem prevention and treatment before extensive damage occurs.

Just as with humans, both dogs and cats have two sets of teeth; baby teeth which start to erupt at about six weeks of age; and permanent teeth which begin to appear at about 14 weeks of age. By six months of age the average pet (with some variation according to breed) will have all its permanent teeth.

Carnivores, such as dogs and cats, have a “scissor” bite causing the upper front teeth to close over the lower. If baby teeth erupt in the correct position, good alignment can be maintained for the permanent teeth to follow. Checking baby teeth at eight weeks can enable removal of any incorrectly placed teeth and avoid a bad jaw position before permanent teeth appear. As permanent teeth erupt, close monitoring to make sure the baby teeth either fall out or are removed can avoid abnormal bite patterns and the early onset of periodontal disease.

Periodontal disease is the bacterial destruction of tissues that attach the tooth to the bone of the jaw and can cause the loss of more teeth than any other factor. Estimates are that 80% of the dogs and cats in this country will experience some degree of periodontal disease before their life is half over.

Life Extension by Keeping the Teeth Clean

The answer to periodontal disease is oral hygiene. Chewing dry food, rawhide strips, chew biscuits, and other chewable toys can help mechanically remove destructive plaque and calculus. However, some animals are so susceptible to periodontal disease that more is needed then a toothbrush.

Most pets can be taught to accept the brushing process in the same manner as commands used in obedience class. Set aside a few minutes each day and start with a small, soft toothbrush and water. For the first day or two, just rub the brush around the outside of the mouth and, as the pet permits, in and out of the mouth.

Then begin to brush a tooth or two each day. Increase the number of teeth covered and the thoroughness of the brushing process at a rate that the pet will permit without significant resistance. At the end of each training period, give your pet a small treat or reward. It may take a week or two to train yourself and your pet to completely brush all the teeth.

To provide significant improvement in oral health, brushing is needed every day. Once or twice a week doesn’t keep the bacterial numbers under control. Baking soda and water is acceptable as a toothpaste unless the pet has medical problems aggravated by increased salt. There are several commercial pet toothpaste products available, but it is the brush that provides the real cleaning power.

By middle age, a clean, healthy mouth is essential to your pet’s achieving a maximum life span. Toxins produced by periodontal disease affect the other body organs and the body’s resistance to other diseases. By starting at 18 months to two years of age, establishing a daily brushing routine, along with the annual cleaning and polishing of your pet’s teeth by your veterinarian, you can avoid a great number of chronic infections and health problems.