Periodontal disease is characterized by excessive tartar accumulations, bad breath (halitosis), and inflammation of the gums. Every pet develops some degree of periodontal disease. How severe it gets depends on what is eaten, how much chewing occurs, the presence of other diseases, the effectiveness of the immune defense mechanisms, and the level of dental care provided.
Bad breath can also be associated with mouth infections. Stomatitis, a severe inflammation of the soft tissues, periodontitis infection of the tooth supportive tissue), severe cavities (caries), tooth fractures, lodged foreign bodies (stick or bone caught in the gums) and tooth root abscesses can all produce foul breath odours. For these latter conditions, intervention with antibiotics, pain therapy, and surgical repair may be indicated.
To control periodontal disease, preventive oral hygiene is critical. Oral hygiene begins with a proper diet. Feeding your pet a dry pet food is more effective than feeding moist foods in provision of adequate chewing exercise and gum stimulation. Additional cleaning can be achieved by providing dry chew treats, and for dogs, rawhide strips and chew toys. Animal bones are not recommended for chewing because they can break teeth, damage the gums, or cause intestinal upsets.
Some newer diets and treats have integrated tartar control components and these are an excellent adjunct for pets that are prone to oral disease.
A dental home care program should be carried out. Daily care is ideal, but even twice weekly brushing of the teeth and gum has proven benefit. Although dental care is most easily accomplished in the kitten or puppy about the time the permanent teeth erupt, it can be introduced gradually in the older pet as well. The brushing procedure should initially be kept simple and should be followed with a pleasant reward. For example, brushing only one or two teeth with water, and then gradually including more teeth, and finally adding a veterinary dentifrice to the regimen at a later time is a good progression for training. Avoid the use of human toothpastes. Select one of the tuna or other pet-friendly flavours instead. The foaming action of the human paste detergents can cause an upset stomach and if swallowed daily can lead to stomach and gut irritation.
Ideally, a soft infant toothbrush or a brush designed specifically for use in pets should be used. If this is refused, a soft cloth wrapped around the index finger can be used to clean the teeth and gums. Finger brushes (i.e. pediatric rubber fingers with small brushes built-in at the tip, available from your veterinarian) are especially effective. Your veterinarian can also demonstrate the correct method of brushing so that your fingers are safer and brushing is most effective. Note that inner surfaces of the teeth that sit next to the tongue in cats do not need careful brushing because of their naturally abrasive tongue. Your veterinarian may also recommend use of a mouthwash or rinse.
While both baking soda paste and hydrogen peroxide/ water mixtures have been advocated in the past as suitable dentifrices, currently available commercial products are preferred, especially those that include chlorhexidine or stannous fluoride. These are available from your veterinarian as a liquid or toothpaste.
For more information on proper dental hygiene for pets, see your veterinarian.