Five Ways to Keep Your Pet's Teeth Healthy

Kate Zukowski, a certified veterinary technician specializing in dental care, shares tips for improving animals’ oral health
Female vet technician checks a dog’s teeth. Kate Zukowski is a veterinary technician at Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic who specializes in dental care for pets. She shares tips for keeping your dog or cat’s teeth healthy.
Certified veterinary technician Kate Zukowski checks a dog’s teeth at the Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic. Photo: Anna Miller
October 29, 2019

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Think about the fuzzy plaque you feel on your teeth if you forget to brush before bed. Now imagine you haven’t brushed your teeth in ten years. This is the case for many beloved pets. 

“Most people will brush once or twice a day, and we still have to go to the dentist every six months for a professional cleaning. It's not different in animals,” said Kate Zukowski, a certified veterinary technician at Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic based at Worcester Technical High School and run by Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

Zukowski recently became a veterinary technician specialist in dentistry, making her the first and only boarded dental technician in New England, according to veterinarian Gregory Wolfus, V98, who oversees Tufts at Tech. When veterinary students at Cummings School come through the clinic for their primary-care rotation, Zukowski guides them through dental procedures and passes along valuable oral health know-how.

The most common dental issues she sees at Tufts at Tech are periodontal disease, fractured teeth, and tooth resorption in cats. More than 80 percent of dog and cats over age three will have some level of periodontal disease, she said.

Because some pet dental problems can be prevented before they cause infection, pain, or discomfort, Zukowski offered the following dental advice to keep your pet’s teeth healthy:

1. Get up close and personal with your pet’s mouth. Squat down to your pet’s level (or lift your pet up to yours). Does your cat or dog have bad breath? Do you see areas of discoloration on their teeth or gums? Is he chewing with only one side of his mouth? Tell your veterinarian. These can be signs of dental disease.

2. Brush or wipe teeth every day. Brushing is great, but it’s not the only option. You can wipe the plaque off your pet’s teeth with a specially designed pet dental wipe. And various types of kibble and treats are formulated to scrape plaque off as your pet eats.

Having a pet who won’t let you in his mouth is no excuse for neglecting dental care. While young animals can be trained to allow their teeth to be brushed, “the hard part is that many people adopt animals that are already semi-adults or adults, and those people don't have experience to do the tooth brushing or even the information to know the value of it,” Wolfus said. “So they try it once and don't succeed, and that's the end of the story.”

Talk with your veterinary health care team to develop a home dental care plan tailored to your pet’s needs.

3. Skip the bones. Many people may think bones are great for eradicating plaque, Zukowski said. But that’s not true. They’re good for breaking teeth. “I was in a pet store recently and I was amazed that there were gigantic bones, deer antlers, and cow hoofs with signage that said, ‘Good for teeth,’” Zukowski said. “I wanted to stand in the middle of the aisle and scream, ‘This is not good for teeth!’ This is good for dentists.”

4. Look for this seal of approval. It can be confusing for consumers, as there’s no regulatory oversight to ensure a pet product does what it claims to do. However, Wolfus said, there is an agency called the Veterinary Oral Health Council, or VOHC, which fact checks research claims made by products. “If it’s factually based, they’ll put a VOHC stamp of acceptance on it,” he said.

One caveat: There are some products on the market that do not carry the VOHC seal but are still very effective. Consult with your veterinary care team before deciding on a particular product, Zukowski said.

5. Seek out these ingredients. The following ingredients in oral care products can help keep teeth healthy:

  • Chlorhexidine gluconate, a chemical that curtails bacteria growth in the mouth.
  • Zinc, a chemical element that can help prevent inflammation and tooth decay.
  • Vitamin C, which is good for reducing oral inflammation.
  • Sodium hexametaphosphate, a type of inorganic salt (often used as a food additive) that prevents plaque from hardening into dental tartar.
  • Papain, pomegranate, blueberry, clove, and chlorophyll are all natural ingredients that are beneficial to oral health.

Lastly, bring your cat or dog to the veterinarian for an annual dental checkup. Early intervention can prevent dental issues from causing other health problems in your pet.

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.