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By Gina Spadafori
Pet Columnist

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Dental Care is Key to Keeping your Pet's Teeth in Place

Let me get this out of the way up front: Yes, I do brush my pets' teeth. I really do.
I believe the task is too important to ignore, and so, too, are regular veterinary dental examinations and cleanings as recommended under anesthesia. That's why one of my own older dogs went under recently, coming out of anesthesia safely with a couple fewer teeth, but healthier teeth and gums overall.
Does this make you feel guilty? That's not my intent. My goal is to show that I practice what I preach because I believe good dental care is essential not only to your pet's health, but also to his quality of life. Broken, rotting teeth and infected gums make pets miserable, and I can't tell you how many times I've opened a pet's mouth in an exam room to see gums so inflamed they look as if a blow-torch had been passed over them.
A situation like that is what should make someone feel guilty. But the problems -- and the guilt -- are easily avoided. Your veterinarian is ready to get you on the right track.
First thing to remember: Foul-smelling breath from your dog or cat is never normal. It's a symptom of disease that you need to heed.
Second thing: Brushing is easier than you think it will be. Approach the task with a positive attitude, take it slow and easy, and then follow with something the pet likes -- a play session or a food treat. 
For kittens and puppies, the focus is on training and prevention, but adult pets will likely need veterinary attention before a preventive-care program can help. Your veterinarian should check your pet's mouth, teeth and gums as part of the regular examination, and make recommendations based on what he or she finds there. For many pets, the next step will be a complete dentistry under anesthesia. The procedure takes 45 minutes to an hour, and involves not only cleaning and polishing the teeth, but also checking for and treating broken or rotting teeth, cavities, abscesses and periodontal disease. 
This is a medical procedure, not a cosmetic one, which is why it's absolutely not the same as those "no-anesthesia" cleanings offered by non-veterinarians. I recognize that people worry about anesthesia, but the benefits outweigh the risks. Today's anesthetics are dramatically safer than those of even a few years ago, making the dangers and pain of untreated dental problems the bigger risk to health, even with older pets like my own dog Quixote. 
After the problems are treated, at-home care can keep things in good shape. Here are some tips:

  • Brush regularly. Use a toothpaste designed for dogs or cats a couple of times a week at least, although daily is better. If you absolutely cannot brush, ask your veterinarian about dental rinses that can help prevent dental problems. They're usually not as good as brushing, but they can and do help. 

  • Discuss your pet's diet with your veterinarian. Some pet-food companies offer kibble with a mild abrasive texture to help keep teeth clean, or with ingredients that help keep plaque from forming. 

  • Offer tooth-safe toys to help with oral health. Again, talk to your veterinarian. You'll want to avoid chews so hard they can break a tooth, and you may want to consider those impregnated with enzymes to help prevent plaque buildup.

Once your pet's teeth are in good shape, you'll notice an end to bad breath. The true benefits of dental care go far beyond a better-smelling mouth, however, making what seems like an aesthetic issue one that is in fact a cornerstone of a preventive-care program.
February is Pet Dental Health Month. During the month, your veterinarian may be able to provide special information on your pet's dental care or have special offers on services. - By Dr. Marty Becker
'Dry nose' may mean nothing much at all
Q: In one of your books you said a dry nose on a dog isn't a reliable sign of illness. I'd always thought it was. What changed? -- via Facebook.
A: The link between a dry nose and a fever never really was reliable, but that's not the whole story, because sometimes it can be. Confused? Let me explain.
Tears are constantly produced to lubricate the movement of the eyes. Because this lubrication is so critical to eye health, the dog's body routinely produces more tears than are needed. These excess tears flow through the nasolacrimal (literally "nose-tears") duct and out the base of the nose. (People also experience this when crying.)
As the tears drip down into the dog's face, the dog licks her nose, spreading the tear fluid over the nose, which wets it. Then, evaporation causes the nose to be cool. The moistened nose is better equipped to dissolve airborne chemicals, which contributes to a better sense of smell.
When a dog is sick, the body uses up more internal water in the process of fighting disease. This increased water use, especially with a fever, causes relative dehydration, even if the dog is drinking a normal amount of water. This dehydration results in decreased tear production, and hence a dry nose.
The same dry nose, however, could be because of fluid loss from panting on a hot day. And some dogs (such as poodles) are prone to blocked tear ducts, so there is less fluid flowing through the ducts to moisten the nose. The bottom line is that the dry nose may be an indicator of dehydration, but it indicates illness only if it's coupled with lethargy and other symptoms.
In other words, a sick dog may have a dry, warm nose, but a dry, warm nose can also be the result of something other than illness. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Tomcats: The look we don't really miss

  • The overwhelming majority (nearly 90 percent) of owned cats are spayed or neutered, which means that many people no longer recognize the look of a mature tomcat on the prowl for a mate. What biologists call "secondary sex characteristics" in unneutered male cats includes the development of heavy jowls (called "shields") and a heavier, more muscular build. It's a good thing we don't see it so often, since cats capable of breeding add to the burden of finding homes for the homeless. 

  • Additional dog treats have been withdrawn from sale, as the Hartz Mountain Corp. cited concerns with the use of unapproved antibiotics in the Chinese-sourced chicken. China is not allowed to export chicken for human consumption in the United States, but the ban does not include chicken products intended for pets, according to The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been unable to pinpoint any problem with the pet treats, even though pet owners have reported more than 3,000 sick dogs to the agency, with more than 500 deaths. 

  • Four new veterinary schools are in the works -- two of them in Arizona. But the question of whether there will be enough jobs for these graduates is hotly debated in the veterinary community, according to VIN News ( While there's an acknowledged shortage of rural, large-animal veterinarians, most newly minted graduates prefer the hours and lifestyle of companion-animal veterinarians in more urban settings, and competition for these jobs is already keen. Not so keen? Relatively low salaries for these medical professionals, many of whom graduate with a crushing burden of student debt. -- Gina Spadafori

Date Published: 2/11/2013 10:05:00 AM
Date Reviewed/Revised: 02/11/2013


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Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of Dogs for Dummies, Cats for Dummies and Birds for Dummies. She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her at

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