Take charge of your pet's dental health

Oral disease in dogs and cats can lead to infections that damage the heart, liver, lungs and kidneys. Here's how to keep your animal in top shape.

Of course you take measures to keep your pet healthy. You get him all the necessary shots and medicines, exercise him and feed him the right foods. But don't forget that your pet's dental health is important, too. This aspect is often neglected: 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats show signs of oral disease by age three, according to the American Veterinary Dental Association. Oral disease develops when bacteria buildup on the teeth causes plaque and tartar to form. If this gunk isn't removed, disease can form, causing pain and tooth loss. It can also lead to infection, which can enter the bloodstream and potentially harm the heart, liver and kidneys. Take these precautions to keep your animal healthy.

See your vet often. Your vet should examine your pet's teeth twice a year. Also, ask your vet how often your pet needs a thorough dental cleaning, which is done under general anesthesia. Usually, it's about once a year, but can be more for certain breeds.

Look for signs of disease. Watch for depression, bad breath, a change in eating or chewing habits and pawing at the face and mouth. If your pet will allow it, open its mouth and check for red and swollen gums, yellowish-brown tartar around the gums, and pain or bleeding when you touch the gums or mouth. If you notice any of these symptoms, see your vet right away.

Keep his mouth clean. Ask your vet to give you a lesson on how to brush your pet's teeth. If your animal won't let you do this, at least try to use a clean cloth or some gauze to give his teeth a quick swipe, says Dr. Jennifer Lander, a veterinarian and manager of Animal Health at the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Serve the right meals. Check www.vohc.org for pet food and dental chews approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council. These foods, such as Friskies Feline Dental Diet and Purina Veterinary Diets Dental Chews Canine Treats, can help reduce the severity of oral disease.