You brush your teeth at least twice a day—skip toothbrushing just once and you can literally feel the plaque forming on your teeth.

But how about your pets? How many times have you brushed their teeth?

Never? You’re not alone. A lot of pet parents don’t know that they can—and should—brush their fur-babies’ pearly whites.

While periodontal health for pets is not a new concept, our country is still playing catch-up. The good news is that the first veterinary dentists are about to finish their two-year specialization at the Philippine Animal Hospital Association (which we covered in a previous article). While we wait, let’s take a look at why dental care for pets is important and how tooth decay can lead to more serious diseases.

Taking the Oral High Ground

Keeping your furry companions’ teeth healthy isn’t just a matter of oral health: Their mouths may reveal hidden systemic illnesses. For instance, tooth decay may be related to diabetes. Gingivitis, or gum inflammation, can be a sign of an underlying viral infection.

In some cases, poor oral health can indirectly lead to illness. Cats experiencing pain upon chewing may refuse to eat their food. Without adequate nutrition, they are prone to vitamin deficiencies, macronutrient malnutrition, and infection. Even without any concurrent feeding problems, periodontal disease can cause a lot of trouble.

In humans, dental health is associated with cardiovascular disease, and inflammation is considered the phenomenon that links them. Different elements of heart disease—the hardening of the blood vessels and the formation of blood clots, for instance—are consequences of an out-of-hand inflammatory process, according to the 2009 consensus report of the Journal of Periodontology and the American Journal of Cardiology. Unhealthy gums in humans have been identified as an independent risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke. Apparently, the same can be said of gum disease in animals, according to the American Veterinary Dental College.

The verdict is in: When it comes to keeping your pet healthy, it’s best to take the oral high ground.

How to Brush your Pet’s Teeth

Put down that human toothpaste before anybody gets hurt! Safety—your pet’s and yours—is of utmost importance, which is why we want to make sure you know how to brush their teeth properly.

  1. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush. If you want something made especially for your furry companion, try to find a finger brush or a cat toothbrush, advises Dr. Rizalina M. Zunio, veterinarian and owner of The Pet Project Vet Clinic. “They’re better to use because they’re really designed for a [pet’s] mouth.”
  2. Don’t use your own toothpaste. “Human toothpaste is not advisable for pets since some contain ingredients that are toxic to them.” Fluoride is one such chemical that’s dangerous to felines: It accumulates in their bodies until it reaches a toxic level. Always ask your vet where you can buy toothpaste for your dog or cat.
  3. Start with a yummy liquid that your pets like. The idea is to get them to like what you’re doing before you do any actual brushing. “In rural areas, coconut oil can be used to start toothbrushing because it is palatable for them and it will help them become familiar with the feel of daily brushing.”
  4. Let them taste the toothpaste without the toothbrush. It’s so much easier to brush their teeth using kitty toothpaste after they’ve grown accustomed to it.
  5. Learn to restrain your fur-baby. Nope, there’s no tying down fur-babies if you don’t want them to plot your murder! Hug your pet from behind, then raise their face to yours by grasping their chin firmly but gently with your non-dominant hand. Use your spare hand to brush their teeth just for a couple of seconds. Repeat daily, increasing your brushing time by small increments until you can access all their teeth.

This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s November 2017 issue.