Behaviour and dental care - we can do better

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Published 29/09/2015 | 00:00

A dog can hold a toothbrush but she can't brush her own teeth
A dog can hold a toothbrush but she can't brush her own teeth

There are are some specific aspects of pet care that are often neglected, with experts feeling that if more attention was given to these areas, the health and quality of life of companion animals could be significantly improved. The two most obvious areas that I notice in my daily work as a vet are first, behaviour, and second, dental care.

I am often surprised at the lack of understanding of animal behaviour amongst pet owners. Many people treat their pets as "mini humans", interacting with them as if they were children or young adults, rather than animals. In some cases, this doesn't cause any problems, but in others, households can end up under continual stress because of the way that a dog has been taught to behave. An example that I see regularly in practice is a dog that is allowed to do exactly what he wants at home, with no boundaries. When dogs like this visit the vet, they can be impossible to examine, because they growl whenever anyone comes near. When I ask their owners how they are at home, I'm told that they never growl, because nobody dares to go near them.

I know that if the owners had been taught a better understanding of dog behaviour when they had first taken on the animal, they would have realised the importance of good socialisation, with plenty of handling of the dog. And they would have known that all dogs should be taught the rules of the house, which means that they cannot just do what they want to do, all the time.

Another example of poor understanding of animal behaviour is the way that many multiple cat households feed their pets: they line up the food bowls, side by side, so that the cats are right beside each other. Cats are independent creatures who enjoy privacy when eating. If you watch cats that are forced to eat in close proximity to others, you can see that they are stressed. They often flatten their ears, even growling as they eat. Most cats are far happier to eat food on their own, out of direct sight of other cats. Food bowls should be placed far away from one another, not close together.

In some countries, people have do undergo training and exams before being allowed to keep pets. This is an extreme answer to the problem, but if people at least went out of their way to read up about pet behaviour before taking on an animal, life would improve dramatically for tens of thousands of dogs and cats around Ireland.

Dental care is another neglected area of pet ownership. Periodontal disease is common: it affects around 80% of dogs over the age of three , despite the fact that around 90% of owners think that their pets' teeth are perfect. Most people don't look at their pets' teeth, and they don't realise that there's a problem until it's very advanced.

There is a widespread mistaken belief that pets' teeth are somehow "self-cleaning", and that they keep their mouths healthy simply by chewing dry food or occasional bones. In fact, pets' teeth are remarkably similar to human teeth, and the optimal level of care requires similar actions as we take ourselves.

After a meal, traces of food dissolved in saliva form an invisible sticky coating which covers the teeth: this is called plaque. Plaque is like wet paint and it's easy to sweep it away with a toothbrush, like wiping wet paint off a shiny surface.

If toothbrushing is done daily, dogs can have healthy mouths, right into their old age. If dogs refuse to allow their teeth to be brushed, then a simpler alternative should be used, such as the new Pedigree Dentaflex chew. This has a special spongy texture that flexes around the tooth, enabling it to clean close to the gum line. Trials have shown that specially designed dental chews like Dentaflex are far more effective than rawhide type chews or other standard dog chews.

If the teeth are not cleaned regularly, and the plaque is left on the teeth, it reacts with the saliva to form a hard, brown substance called tartar. This is like dried paint and it cannot be removed by brushing: it needs to be physically scraped off under anaesthesia, by a vet. If it is not removed, the tartar continues to accumulate creating a thick brown layer on the teeth. As this gathers, the gums become inflamed, and bacterial infection moves in. This produces a foul smell, and the infection worsens, causing the gums to recede. Infection then gets into the tooth sockets, and the teeth loosen or fall out. Advanced dental disease then starts to affect a pet's general health. Studies show that pets with good dental health live for longer. If you care about your pet's health, there's no excuse for not looking after their teeth, either by regular toothbrushing or by offering a good quality dental chew.

If I had my way, everyone would have good knowledge of animal behaviour, and all owners would care properly for their pets' teeth. Animals in Ireland would have longer, healthier, happier and less stressed lives. And they'd have cleaner teeth, with sweeter smelling breath too. What's not to like about that?

October is Pedigree Dental Care month, and Pete will be discussing this during his regular live online Q&A session on Wednesday 30th September from 7 - 8pm on the Pedigree Ireland Facebook Page.

Wexford People

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