How often should you brush your pet's teeth? Daily brushing is a good goal, Scrivener says. American Animal Hospital Association recommends brushing at least three times per week.
Starting when your pet is a kitten or puppy makes it easier. "It's fun. It's a game. It's playing," Scrivener says. She advises letting the young pet chew a little on your finger to get used to having its mouth handled.
Toothpaste made for humans never should be used. It can irritate an animal's stomach. Veterinarians and pet stores sell dentifrice in animal pleasing flavors such as poultry, seafood and beef - even peanut butter. To start, wrap some gauze or a washcloth around your finger and use it as you would a toothbrush. A cotton swab works well for the smaller mouths of cats, Scrivener says. Toothbrushes designed especially for animals are available; some fit over a finger like a thimble.
Can you teach an old dog or cat new tooth tricks? "It's a lot easier if you have a younger animal," McCullough admits. But a gentle and patient approach with rewards can help older pets get used to regular brushing.
Owners should watch - and sniff - for signs of periodontal disease. These include swollen, red or bleeding gums, persistent bad breath and loose or lost teeth, according to American Animal Hospital Association.
Regular dental exams by veterinarians - including cleaning under a short-lasting anesthetic - also are recommended. How often? That depends on what you feed your pet, home dental care and your pet's breed and bite - the way the upper and lower teeth come together, Scrivener says. Food and treats designed to help control tartar are beneficial. The mechanical abrasion of dry food across the enamel surface helps clean teeth.