I work in a small animal hospital where we perform lots of surgical procedures (exciting stuff like spays and neuters and ‘lump removals’), but the most expensive procedures we perform are the dental ones. Often, a routine dental cleaning costs about $450 and includes an IV catheter, anesthesia monitoring, bloodwork and dental radiographs. And that (eye-watering) cost can quickly climb if extractions are necessary. Fractured teeth and genetics are not under your control, but for basic tartar and gingivitis there are plenty of things you can do at home to help ward off the novocain and the high price tag!

Brushing

While it’s the least popular and most time-consuming thing we can do for Fido’s (or Fluffy’s) teeth, it is easily the most important. Unsurprisingly, our furry friends usually won’t just sit there and smile for us! I recommend starting when your pet is young (if possible) and taking it in steps.

Pet toothpaste comes in different delectable flavors like poultry or beef (yum) and most pets think it’s a real treat. Don’t taste it yourself! (I made that mistake and it was horrendous.) But the fur-covered members of the household do seem to enjoy it, I promise! Start by putting some of the toothpaste on your finger and letting your pet lick it off. From there you can use your finger to rub it on their gums without a toothbrush. Then progress to using a finger toothbrush you just slip on over your pointer finger. (My experience is that dogs and cats do better with finger brushes than with the larger toothbrushes you can buy.) Again, start in small increments and stop before your pet starts to fight you, so you end on a high note and your pet doesn’t want to hide under the bed the next time it sees you with the toothbrush. Many veterinary practices have sample dental starter kits to try, so just ask! If you can do this on a daily basis, you get a gold star! (Actually, you should get a trophy or plaque because that kind of dedication is something…special.) But even if you can only brush your pet’s teeth once a week, it will help.

Food

Most dogs and cats go crazy over that smelly, brown, can-shaped lump of wet food we give them, but it’s really important to offer your dog or cat dry food every day. Dry food can help to ‘scrape’ your pet’s teeth, providing a bit of a cleaning benefit.

  • Cats – The moisture in canned food is great for their kidneys, so give them both wet food and dry food. It’s a good idea to put out a small amount of canned food in the morning and again at night, and leave some dry food out for snacking on during the day (unless you have a Hindenburg-sized cat).
  • Dogs – Most dogs do just fine with just dry food, and I don’t recommend offering canned food at all unless there is a medical reason to do so. Smaller breeds can be a bit finicky, but unless your dog is underweight, it will learn to eat the food you leave out for it. (I have the opposite issue, as my Labrador is more of a hoover vacuum. I actually have to pour water over his food to slow him down or else it comes back up on my carpet and he eats it again!)

Treats

As far as treats go, many people head to the pet store and pick up products by a company called Greenies. While their products are good, my experience is that prescription dental food is even better! Science Diet makes a ‘dental diet’ food (not diet as in ‘low calorie’, but as in ‘specially formulated for pet dental health’) called T/D that comes as very large kibbles, so your dog or cat has to work a bit to eat it! I don’t usually recommend this kibble as your pet’s everyday food as it’s a bit high in fat (and can be costly if given exclusively), but as a more occasional treat, it’s fine. Throw some in with Fido’s or Fluffy’s food and you‘ll reap some preventative dental benefits! The act of biting into treats can actually “brush” those back molars and help prevent tartar buildup. There’s also a comparable Purina version called DH, but I don’t have any personal experience with that one.

If you’ve ever seen a dog really go at a rawhide bone, you’ll understand why they are great at keeping your dog’s teeth clean, as that intense chewing action can break off tartar. CET (An entire company dedicated to dental health products – Who knew?) makes special rawhide chews that contain enzymes to help prevent plaque, so you’ll be doing double duty! They also produce a dental chew for cats that can be ingested and should work just as well. A word of caution for aggressive chewers that tend to destroy their toys…Monitor your dog while it’s chewing and be sure to remove and dispose of rawhides when they become small enough to swallow. I’ve seen dogs with these stuck in their stomachs or intestines and required surgery to remove them. Trying to save money on dental expenses for your pet is all for nothing if it needs emergency gastrointestinal surgery instead!

Water Additives and Rinses

A great water additive that contains enzymes to help prevent plaque buildup is helpful too. Just squirt it into Fido’s or Fluffy’s water bowl every time you fill it up and it works like a powerful mouthwash for your pet. It can also help with bad breath, which is a win-win if you ask me! CET makes an oral rinse you can spray directly onto your dog’s or cat’s teeth after eating that works similar to the water additive. It’s a bit more labor intensive as you have to hold your pet’s mouth open/lips back and manage to spray in the right direction (not in the eye!) at the same time, which requires a level of coordination many of us, including myself, are lacking.

Beyond these tips, it’s very important to have your pet examined yearly by your veterinarian. He or she will let you know if a dental cleaning is necessary. If your vet does recommend one, please do it! Delaying a cleaning could become more costly for you in the future (big time). Regular dental cleanings for your pet can prevent diseased or loose teeth, and in extreme cases, prevent cardiac or renal disease caused by dental bacteria getting into your pet’s bloodstream. Aim to give your pet a clean, white, pearly smile and you’ll end up saving money in the long run. Then you can start saving up for braces. Just kidding, that’s your human children, not your furry ones!