Q&A on dental care of pets (Sponsored by Iams)

Veterinary dentist Dr. Jan Bellows answers common questions about dental care in pets.

What is the difference between plaque and tartar?

Plaque is a soft deposit or biofilm on the teeth. This deposit consists of large amounts of bacteria with additional particles of food, protein, and cellular debris. Plaque generally forms along the gingival margin and extends subgingivally, initiating gingivitis. Minerals, primarily calcium, deposit in the plaque to form tartar (calculus). Some plaque can be removed by brushing the teeth and by the crunching, scraping action of chewing dry kibble; however, it starts to reform within minutes after removal.

Tartar is a hard, yellowish deposit on teeth (see photo). It is composed of mineral salts, food, and other debris that has hardened over time. Tartar provides a rough, porous surface, which increases the total surface area for more plaque and tartar to form. This repeated cycle—plaque, tartar, more plaque, and more tartar—contributes to periodontal inflammation. Tartar cannot be removed by brushing or by the crunching, scraping action of chewing dry kibble. Tartar will need to be removed though a professional dental cleaning with the patient under anesthesia. However, the rate of tartar and plaque formation can be reduced through home care that includes regular brushing and the feeding of a food that includes the tartar-reducing agent sodium hexametaphosphate.

What health concerns are associated with plaque and tartar buildup?

Clients need to understand that dental health is important not only for the well-being of the oral cavity but also for the pet's whole body. Plaque initiates gingivitis and is often the initiating source of bad breath. Plaque is also the foundation for tartar formation. Tartar and plaque accumulation produce mechanical irritation, increased colonization of bacteria, and progression of gingivitis, eventually leading to periodontitis. Advancing disease leads to gum regression, root exposure, and destruction of supportive connective tissue, causing mobile teeth and tooth loss. In some instances, severe disease may even lead to health conditions in other parts of the body, including the heart and kidneys.

What is a balanced approach to preventive dental care?

A comprehensive approach to a pet's oral health includes both professional and home care segments. The veterinarian is key to establishing an oral health program that includes professional care, such as examination and assessment of the teeth, tongue, and gingivae; dental scaling and treatment of disease, when necessary; and education of the client on proper oral home care.

The pet owner has the important role of carrying out the day-to-day dental care, including regular brushing or wiping of the teeth and providing plaque and tartar control benefits through their choices of treats and food. The strength of a dental preventive program comes from daily home care and a supportive reminder system to ensure the pet receives periodic professional oral assessment and treatment, appropriate to its oral health and the level of home care being performed.

What tips can you share for improving client compliance in a pet's dental care?

First and foremost, clients need to understand why oral health is important to their pet's overall well-being, as well as the importance of dental home care. Dental care improves overall health, not just oral health. Posters, flipcharts, models, and handouts are advantageous in educating clients and improving information retention.

Dental care should begin when a pet is very young so that it becomes familiar with mouth handling and plaque control. Firm recommendations on the choice of a tooth or finger brush, dental wipes, and toothpaste and a demonstration of teeth cleaning can boost client confidence and compliance.

Recommendations should also extend to effective and safe products that reduce plaque and tartar formation through mechanical or non-mechanical means, such as dental treats or foods with a coating of sodium hexametaphosphate. For clients who lack the ability to clean the teeth or for pets that are uncooperative, dental treats and food become a big asset in home care.