February is National Pet Dental Month; Colorado State Veterinary Teaching Hospital Offers Free Screenings for Dogs and Cats Feb. 26

Colorado State University will offer free dental exams for dogs and cats from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Feb. 26 as part of national Pet Dental Health Month.

Appointments are required and can be made between 9 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays by calling the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at (970) 491-7101. Owners should ask for the dental receptionist at the small animal desk and indicate they would like to schedule a free diagnostic exam.

After the oral exam is complete, each animal gets a written evaluation of the mouth for use by the family veterinarian. Diagnoses are open to any animal, not just those treated at Colorado State.

Pet dentistry is an overlooked health issue for dogs and cats, said Dr. Lynne Kesel, veterinarian and specialist in pet dental health who urges owners to use private clinics offering pet dental services if that option is more convenient.

"This isn’t merely a cosmetic issue or a matter of an animal having ‘doggy breath’," she said. "It’s a serious health problem for dogs and cats. If plaque isn’t cleaned by what an animal eats or by other means, it can inflame the gums and spread infection. Periodontal (gum) disease can eat right into tissue surrounding the teeth."

Kesel pointed out that periodontitis not only is the leading cause of tooth loss in dogs and cats but can have systemic effects. It is linked to kidney disease in cats and to both feline and canine respiratory diseases, including pneumonia. Toy breeds of dogs are at particular risk.

The irony, said Kesel, is that modern pets eat food that doesn’t take care of the problem as it did for their wild ancestors. Soft or cereal-like foods are no substitute for the skin, bones and sinews of prey that helped clean the teeth of ancestral dogs and cats.

"That took some chewing," Kesel said. "Fiber from skin, bones, ligaments and tendons all helped clean around teeth and keep gums healthy."

To mimic that cleaning action in household pets, rawhide chews (regular or flakes, not reprocessed) work well for dogs, and commercial tooth-cleaning products are available. But the best recourse is to brush your own pet’s teeth. Most animals will respond positively if they’re rewarded afterward. Kesel recommends brushes that are specially designed for animals and can be held at a 45-degree angle; the pumice and fine particles in meat- or malt-flavored animal toothpastes will remove the plaque.

Don’t use toothpaste intended for humans, she said (it contains a detergent that should not be swallowed, and animals will likely do so).

Adult cats require patience (smaller brushes are available for them). Start pups and kittens early by sticking a finger in their mouths, rubbing teeth and gums, graduating to brushing with gauze and then eventually moving on to a very soft child’s toothbrush.

Brush pets’ teeth at least twice a week to avoid inflammation, although Kesel recommends daily brushing. Watch for signs of periodontal disease: visibly dirty teeth, bleeding gums, an odor like rotting meat and loose teeth or missing teeth. In severe cases, the animal may be reluctant to be touched on the cheek or around the mouth.

Most pets require a professional checkup after three years of age, because left untreated, "virtually any dog or cat more than three years old is like a person who goes a year without brushing his teeth," Kesel said. "Periodontitis is likely to set in.

"The usual interval between professional cleanings is one year, but brushing and other home dental care can extend this period."

Colorado State’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital is located at 300 West Drake Road in Fort Collins.