Posts tagged health

Keeping the Holidays Safe for Your Pets

The holidays can be a stressful and even dangerous time for our pets. The routines are upset, visitors abound, and tempting smells are coming from the kitchen! Keeping pets safe is sometimes tricky at this time of year, so here are a few tips and tricks to help everyone enjoy the holidays fearlessly!

The Christmas tree is the first item of great interest on your pet’s Santa list. Many cats find it irresistibly tempting to climb. So, make sure your tree is in a sturdy, tip-resistant stand. (A classic Christmas card shows a cat and two women gazing at a decorated tree that’s tightly guy-wired to the walls and ceiling; one woman says to the other, “No chance of the cat knocking over the tree this year!”)

Most tree stands have a water container—this is another hazard. Aromatic compounds from the tree itself and the chemicals often added to the water are highly toxic to pets; make sure the container is wrapped and taped or otherwise made inaccessible to your feline and canine friends, who will often try to drink from this novel water source.

Christmas lights and wires on the tree and around the home are an invitation to chew for both cats and dogs. For wires that are easily accessible to curious teeth (especially young animals), run them through inexpensive foam pipe insulators that you can find at any home improvement or hardware store.

Metal tinsel is rare these days, but mylar tinsel and garlands can also pose a swallowing hazard. They can cause serious damage to a pet’s intestines. Consider a beaded garland instead. Also, when unwrapping presents, make sure all ribbon and string is safely disposed.

Keep glass ornaments to a minimum if you must use them at all, and place them higher on the tree, with unbreakable ornaments lower down. A broken glass ornament is a minefield for tender paws. If a pet eats all or part of a glass ornament, immediately feed cotton balls or bread soaked in milk or cream; the soft mushy texture will gather up all the sharp pieces and safely “escort” and expel them.

Parties and visitors increase the risk of a cat slipping out through an open door; make sure all your pets are microchipped and wearing collars and ID tags.

You may want to provide a “base camp” for your pet that includes food, water, bed—and for cats, a scratching post, and litter box—in a room that’s less likely to be disturbed. A spritz or two of a pet pheromone spray (Only Natural Pet Phero-Soothe) or flower essences (Only Natural Pet Just Relax Flower Essences, or Spirit Essences Holiday Stress Stopper) will keep the atmosphere calm. But no decorations in that room, please, especially lit candles! (Of course, unattended burning candles are a serious hazard at any time of year!)

Take it easy on the treats. Too many fatty treats like turkey skin or ham can cause serious tummy upset; in dogs, these can trigger life-threatening pancreatitis. Ask dinner guests to refrain from feeding “under the table”—or even better, keep pets safely confined during the festivities. Chocolate, of course, is toxic to both dogs and cats.

For extra comfort, consider adding essences, herbs (like Animals’ Apawthecary Tranquility Blend, or Only Natural Pet Chinese Herbal Blends Calm), or homeopathics (Newton Homeopathics Nervousness & Fear) to meals during the most hectic times.

A little extra care and attention will make this holiday season a safe and happy one for the whole family!

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Fur Loss – What’s the Problem?

Is your pet “going bald?” There are many reasons why a pet might lose fur, but in most cases, it’s because the of overgrooming: chewing the hair and breaking it off, or pulling it out completely. Those 12 tiny incisor teeth between the canines (fangs) are designed for grooming, and under normal circumstances, they’re used to “comb” through the hair to remove debris, mats, and parasites.

Hair loss from any cause is called “alopecia” (“aloe-pee’-sha”).  Sometimes you’ll actually catch your pet in the act of chewing, or notice that he’s scratching or grooming more than usual, but more often you’ll glance down and suddenly notice a bare patch where the fur used to be. Areas where alopecia can develop without you noticing are the tummy, tail base, and front legs. Dogs are especially prone to work intensively at an itchy area and develop raw, open sores called “hot spots.” When cats do this, they cause even worse damage because of their rough, barbed tongues.

Parasites

The first essential step is a trip to the veterinarian’s to diagnose the cause of the problem. Far and away the most common reason for both dogs and cats to pull out their hair, especially around the base of the tail, is flea-bite allergy. It only takes a single flea bite to produce an intense and prolonged reaction. Your vet can prescribe an effective and safe flea preventive and help you get rid of fleas and eggs in and around the house, or you can use more natural methods. Once the fleas are gone, the skin will heal up on its own, or you can use homeopathy to hasten the process.

Another parasite that may be far more common than many vets suspect is mites. There are several species of mites that produce a condition called “mange.” Sarcoptes mites (scabies) cause unrelenting, severe itching. They are most often found on the belly, but can wander anywhere. Scabies mites prefer warm, moist areas. Cheyletiella (“walking dandruff mite”) and Demodex may or may not be itchy, but if the infestation grows out of control, they can cause scratching and hair loss. Demodex is a normal parasite of humans and animals (we have them in the hair follicles of our eyebrows–eew!), but if the immune system is weak, it can explode into a nasty infestation. Sometimes cat ear mites will get into the skin, particularly around the head and neck. All of these can cause animals to lick, scratch, rub, and chew to try to relieve the itching. Strengthening the immune system is the most basic support for a parasitized pet.

Most mites have one thing in common—they are easily transmitted, and they are not picky about where they set up housekeeping. In a household with scabies, multiple animals and people are likely to be infected. Your vet will do a skin scraping and put it under the microscope to check for mites, which are very tiny and hardly visible to the eye. However, scabies mites are very hard to find. It’s been estimated that only 20-30% of pets with scabies are ever definitively diagnosed, even by multiple skin scrapings. If there are two or more itchy individuals (of any species!) in the household, treatment for mites may be indicated.

Ringworm (which is actually a fungus) is also frequently implicated in cases of hair loss, especially around the face, feet and ears. It is more common in cats than dogs, and even more so in kittens–but all animals, including humans, can get them. The hair disappears in small patches, and the skin turns dry, gray (or red, especially in people), and flaky. The time between initial contact and the appearance of lesions varies from one to three weeks. Ringworm is extremely contagious! While it doesn’t seem to bother the animals much, in people it can be extremely itchy! Treating ringworm can be difficult and time-consuming.There are a number of effective topical creams that can be used if the lesions are small and localized, but a pet with a major infection may need to be shaved and bathed in a special shampoo for a month or more. Alternatively, there are oral medications or herbs that must be given consistently, usually for several weeks. They have serious side effects, so be sure to discuss the options thoroughly with your vet. Homeopathic treatment can be very helpful.

Internal Disease

Along with parasites, the veterinarian will also consider other potential causes of hair loss. Certain patterns, such as symmetrical hair loss along the sides, may point to an endocrine disorder; i.e., a problem with one of the hormone-secreting glands, such as the thyroid or adrenals.

Localized pain may also cause the excessive licking. A brewing abscess is painful, and will inspire a lot of licking before it opens and drains. Hair loss over joints may indicate arthritis pain. I once examined a cat who had suddenly started licking at one particular spot on her right side. As I mulled over which organs were in that part of the abdomen, I became suspicious, and ransome tests. It turned out she had acute pancreatitis, which we successfully treated before it became a full-blown, life-threatening problem.

Allergies

Contact allergies, while rare, are possible. A new carpet, cedar bed, or different detergent used to launder the pet’s bedding can cause a local allergic reaction that causes the pet to lick at the itchy area. Hair loss and rash will occur in the areas where the pet most frequently comes into contact with the material, such as feet and tummy.

Once parasites and medical problems have been ruled out, there are still two major players to consider. The first is diet. Food intolerances or allergies may show up first in the skin, causing tiny red crusty sores that spread or coalesce as the pet rubs or scratches at them. Secondary bacterial infections are common once the skin becomes irritated. Food allergies are much more common in cats than in dogs. Lesions around the face, feet, and ears are typically seen with food allergies. Allergies to inhaled substances, such as dust mites or pollen, may produce identical signs. A diet trial with low-allergen food, skin or blood test (good diagnostics for dogs but notoriously inaccurate in cats), or trial treatment may be used to assess allergies. Treatment consists of improved diet including added essential fatty acids and other natural products.

“Fat Deficiency”

The skin and coat are also the first to suffer when the diet is inadequate in certain nutrients. Pets on all-dry, “light,” or “low-fat” diets may develop dry, flaky skin, and the coat may be dull or greasy feeling. The skin may be irritated and the coat may become thin because hair is falling out. Or there may be plenty of fat in the diet, but not the right kind of fat.

Supplementation with essential fatty acids and/or Vitamin E may provide a great deal of relief. Omega 3 fatty acids, in particular, found in fish oil and cod liver oil will help calm underlying inflammation, and condition the skin and fur. There are a number of good products for animals, such as Nordic Naturals Pet Omega 3 or Cod Liver Oil.

Many cat lovers have also found that homemade and raw diets, which eliminate the colorings, preservatives and other additives found in commercial cat foods, has done the trick. Simply getting rid of the dry food in favor of any wet food, such as canned, is the ticket in many cases.

It’s All in the Head?

Some herbs have mild sedating or calming effects. There are combinations made especially for animals. These would be appropriate to use if you know what the stressor is, and can dose appropriately whenever the stress will occur. For instance, if your pet gets upset when he’s left alone, you would give him the herbs right before you leave for work or school.

Other Treatments

Hherbs can help soothe and heal the skin.

Homeopathy can also be very beneficial in treating alopecia related to itching.

One of the best and simplest modalities for treating stress on the pyschological level is flower essence therapy.

Alopecia is a  sign that something’s wrong, and it’s often uncomfortable for the pet. While it’s not always easy to find out why your pet is pulling out her hair, it’s very important to get to the bottom of it, and to treat it appropriately.

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The Truth About Heartworms

Veterinarians and pharmaceutical companies have teamed up in a marketing campaign to frighten pet guardians into giving year-round heartworm preventatives to both dogs and cats. They say they’re doing this to improve protection for individual pets, but the facts say they have other motives.

Except for a the warmest parts of the U.S., heartworms are a completely seasonal problem. There is no reason to give heartworm medicine to most pets year-round (except to make money for those who make and sell it!).

Heartworms are transmitted by mosquitoes. Hearworm larvae, called microfilaria, live in the blood and are sucked up by the bug. Once inside the mosquito, they must further develop before they can infect another dog. For that to occur, outside temperatures must remain above 57 degrees F, day and night, for a certain period of time. The warmer the temperature, the faster the larvae will mature. If the temperature drops below critical level, larval development will stop; but the larvae don’t die—development will re-start at the same point when the weather warms back up. Larvae reach their infective stage in 8 to 30 days (the latter being the entire lifespan of the average mosquito).

In many areas of the country (northern and mountain states, for instance), such warm temperatures simply don’t exist for most of the year, and sustained warm temperatures don’t occur until at least June. In fact, only in Florida and south Texas is year-round heartworm transmission possible. Within 150 miles of the Gulf Coast, heartworm risk exists 9 months out of the year. In the rest of the country, heartworm transmission is possible between 3 and 7 months out of the year. Hawaii and Alaska have each had a few cases of canine heartworm, but the incidence  in those states is very low.

It should be obvious that during seasons where there are no mosquitoes, there is no risk of heartworm. Evidently that little fact escaped the attention of the veterinarian who prescribed heartworm protection—in December–for a puppy living high in the Colorado mountains. At that altitude, temperatures are never warm enough for heartworms!

When an infected mosquito bites a dog or cat, the microfilaria are deposited on the skin, where they crawl into the bite wound and enter the bloodstream. Inside the body, they grow and progress through other larval forms. In dogs, the heartworm’s natural host, larvae migrate to the heart and eventually develop into adult worms, reproduce, fill the blood with microfilaria, and pass it on to the next mosquito.

In cats, full-grown worms can develop, but not reproduce. Adult heartworms are over a foot long, and it doesn’t take but 1 or 2 to fill up a cat’s tiny heart and cause serious problems. In 80% of the time, the cat’s immune system kills the larvae at an earlier stage, and clears the infection. However, microfilaria can cause significant inflammation in the lungs, even in cats who never show any signs of infection. Cases of heartworm have been diagnosed in cats living entirely indoors.

Heartworm preventative drugs do not kill adult heartworms, but they do kill microfilaria up to a certain stage of development. Currently it is believed that larvae under 6 weeks old are affected. This means that in order to prevent heartworms from reaching adulthood, the preventative can be given up to 6 weeks after the mosquito bite and still work. The recommendation is to give the drugs every 30 days, purportedly because once-a-month dosing is easier for most people to remember (and, coincidentally, it also sells more drugs). Preventatives should be given starting 4-6 weeks after the earliest possible infection date and continue 4-6 weeks after the last possible infection date. In most states, protection should be continued through November or December. In southern Texas and Florida, year-round preventatives may be needed. Local conditions may vary from year to year.

The most common preventative drugs for heartworm are ivermectin (Heargard®) and selamectin (Revolution®). While these drugs are generally safe and effective, there are always exceptions. Toxicity associated with ivermectin include depression, ataxia (balance problems or unsteady walk), and blindness, but these are uncommon at the doses used in heartworm preventatives. Selamectin is also used to treat ear mites and some worms; adverse reactions include hair loss at the site of application, diarrhea, vomiting, muscle tremors, anorexia, lethargy, salivation, rapid breathing, and contact allergy.

Update 7/15/2010: The Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) recently reported that mounting evidence suggests that preventatives may be susceptible to a very serious problem: resistance. This is similar to the situation with antibiotics, where massive and unnecessary over-use has caused many bacteria to develop resistance to one or more drugs, creating super-infections, and making many antibiotics useless. The CAPC report states: “There is a growing body of anecdotal reports and experimental evidence that currently available heartworm preventives (macrocyclic lactones) may not be completely efficacious in preventing heartworm infection in dogs. Reports of resistance for dogs in the region [south-central U.S.] have resulted in confusion about how best to prevent infection in veterinary patients.” If ivermectin and related drugs lose their effectiveness, that will be trouble indeed, since these drugs are also used in the treatment of heartworm infections.

Only Natural Pet HW Protect Herbal Formula is a natural product intended for use as a preventative to be used during mosquito season as part of a comprehensive heartworm control program. The formula was designed with two objectives, using herbs that work together to reduce the likelihood of mosquito bites to lower your pet’s risk of becoming infected, and to help eliminate existing larvae-stage parasites in the bloodstream. This tincture was developed to help prevent heartworm infestation using extracts of herbs well known for their mosquito repelling properties, and others well known for their anti-parasitic properties.

References:

Knight DH, Lok JB. Seasonality of heartworm infections and implications for chemoprophylaxis. Clin Tech Sm An Pract. 1998 May;13(2):77-82.

Atkins C. Feline heartworm disease. NAVC Clinician’s Brief. http://www.cliniciansbrief.com/webrief/25.php. Accessed 5/20/2009.

Companion Animal Parasite Council, http://www.capcvet.org/downloads/Heartworm%20Preventive%20Efficacy.pdf. Accessed 7/15/2010.

Pena F, Rosenthal M. Expert shares new protocol to manage heartworm signs. Veterinary Forum. 2008 Aug 1:17-18.  http://www.vetlearn.com/ArticleDetails/tabid/106/ArticleID/3289/Default.aspx. Accessed 7/15/2010.

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Essiac (B.S.S.T.)

Essiac is a unique 4-herb formula with a long history of use for its amazing healing properties. It contains Burdock (Arctium lappa), Sheep Sorrel (Rumex cetosella), Turkey Rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva) powder. This formula is based on a decoction originally developed and used by the Canadian Ojibwa Indians and is also called Ojibwa Tea. This herbal formula was discovered by nurse Rene Caisse in 1922 after talking with a patient who had been cured of breast cancer by a combination of herbs from an Indian medicine man. Caisse treated seriously ill patients with remarkable success for over 50 years.

There are many traditional uses of the 4-herb formula, but Essiac is most famous for its use in cancer patients; however, scientific proof is still lacking (though the individual herbs are each known to have specific anti-cancer action, among many other documented properties). There are also many potential benefits for our pets, including:

  • anti-inflammatory
  • antioxidant
  • anti-ulcer and stomach tonic
  • appetite stimulant
  • blood cleanser
  • blood sugar stabilizer
  • detoxification
  • heart and lung support and tonic
  • immune system enhancement
  • liver protectant
  • prebiotic and probiotic
  • supportive care
  • thyroid normalization
  • tonic
  • reduction of chemotherapy side effects
  • supportive therapy for cancer patients

The herbs are usually brewed into a decoction (strong tea); but they can also be extracted into a tincture. (There are also many products containing the herbs in dried, powdered form, but these are ineffective–the active principles must be decocted or tinctured in order to work in the body.) A tincture is more convenient and easier to administer than tea since smaller quantities can be used, and it also is more stable and has a much longer shelf life.

On a personal note, I gave this 4-herb formula to my dog after he had a malignant tumor removed; it never returned despite its known aggressive nature. I have used it for my own cats, as well as many patients, and I take it myself as a general tonic and immune support.

Only Natural Pet offers the same 4-herb formula in tincture in a product called B.S.S.T. (the initials, of course, stand for Burdock, Sheep Sorrel, Slippery Elm, and Turkey Rhubarb).

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Stress and the Immune System

We’re all familiar with the fight-or-flight reflex, in which acute stress causes the release of the hormone adrenaline, which triggers that response. However, our pets are more likely to experience chronic stress, which has many effects, especially on the immune system.

Both psychological and physical stress are scientifically proven to have a negative impact on the immune system. Now, looking at our pets sleeping contentedly on the sofa, we might think that they don’t have such stressful lives. But even the most pampered couch potato may be subjected to many physical stressors every day:

  • indoor and outdoor air pollution
  • electromagnetic fields, household chemicals
  • hundreds of other large and small assaults, particularly on their keen senses of hearing and smell
  • vaccination
  • medication
  • synthetic additives in food or treats

Psychological stresses also abound:

  • canine and feline hierarchies and social rules
  • behavioral modifications necessary for living with humans—such as not climbing the drapes, tipping the trashcan, or marking all corners of the territory.

Not all of these apply to every pet, but the bottom line is that if a pet thinks it’s stressed, it is stressed, whether or not we can even perceive the cause. Reducing stress, keeping the immune system healthy, and preventing cellular and DNA damage from free radicals and other toxic compounds, are the keys to disease prevention and overall well-being.

To minimize the effects of physical and environmental stress, opt for non-toxic, pet-friendly household and personal care products. Don’t forget that lotions, perfumes, after-shaves, and even topical medications you use on yourself can rub off on your pets, and be ingested when they groom themselves–or lick you!

Many commercial pet foods, especially dry foods and treats, are often made with poor quality ingredients with multiple synethetic additives and preservatives—which is why Only Natural Pet doesn’t sell most of them! Instead, feed one of our natural pet foods, organic pet foods,  or  raw diets. To support the immune system, as well as to prevent chronic inflammation and the degenerative diseases it causes, supplement with Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.

We can alleviate psychological stress by using flower essences, massage, music, and other stress-relieving methods such as play therapy, exercise, indoor entertainment, and interactive games.

For Dogs:

Interactive Throw Toys

Secure Exercise

Indoor Entertainment

For Cats:

Interactive Toys

Indoor Entertainment

We should also remember that our pets often pick up on and reflect our own stresses. Here’s a unique method to help relieve stress in ourselves and our pets: Pet Healing and Meditation CDs.

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Feline Upper Respiratory Problems

Many cats have chronic problems with upper respiratory congestion (runny or stuffy nose, nasal discharge) and/or conjunctivitis (inflammation of the eye membranes; the eyes may be red, swollen, watery, crusty, or goopy). Nasal or eye symptoms may be both be present, or you may see one without the other. Often, the problem comes and goes.

Causes include viral or bacterial infection, congenital defects (small or absent tear ducts), facial conformation (Persian features),  scarring from previous infections; and (rarely) allergies. But by far the most common cause of these symptoms in cats is infection with a Herpes virus. In cats, Herpes is an upper respiratory virus; it’s also called “rhinotracheitis” and is one of the components of the combination upper respiratory/panleukopenia (feline distemper) vaccine that most kittens receive. The vaccine does not actually prevent Herpes infection; its main function is to reduce the severity of the disease.

Nearly all cats are exposed to Herpesvirus as kittens. For most cats, no further problems occur. However, Herpes is a sneaky virus, and likes to lie dormant until it gets a chance to overwhelm the immune system. Because stress suppresses the immune system, cats under stress are particularly susceptible to recurrent Herpes flare-ups.

Herpes conjunctivitis is painful, and usually causes quite a bit of redness and a watery discharge. It often attacks only one eye, producing a lopsided squint. Cats tend to be photophobic; that is, they squint against bright light, or try to avoid it altogether.

There are several treatment options for Herpes. One of the simplest is l-lysine, an amino acid that is inexpensive and readily available at the health food store. It comes in capsules or tablets, usually 500 mg. Capsules are much easier to work with, if you can get them. The dose is 500 mg twice a day for 5 days (total 1,000 mg/day). Lysine has a slightly salty taste, and is easily disguised by mixing with canned cat food or baby food. If that seems like a huge dose for a cat, it is–but that’s what it takes to work. Once the acute episode is under control, a maintenance dose of 250 mg per day can be given indefinitely.

To relieve irritation and wash viral particles from the eye, you can make a homemade saline solution. Use 1/4 teaspoon of table salt to 1 cup of lukewarm water (slightly above room temperature). Three or four times a day, use a cotton ball to drizzle a small amount saline into the cat’s eyes. Make the saline fresh each and every time, because bacteria could grow in the solution between treatments. Or, try an herbal eye wash. Eyebright is an excellent for many eye problems; Halo Herbal Eye Wash is a two part rinse that includes eyebright, as well as infection-fighting goldenseal.

Homeopathy can also be helpful; try Newton Homeopathics Eye Irritation. Reducing stress with flower essences is also very beneficial.

Long-term nutritional support with immune boosting Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants will also help prevent recurrences.

If symptoms worsen, or persist more than a few days, a check by your veterinarian is warranted. Herpes can cause serious corneal ulcers that may result in loss of vision if untreated.

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Sixteen Steps to Detox Your Pet

by Cynthia Holley-Connolly, ONP Staff Writer

Most likely, you have a general idea what toxins are. We often hear things described as being “toxic,” and we know that means potentially damaging, and perhaps poisonous. Toxins can cause, worsen, or accelerate many health problems in people and pets. Sadly, many of the toxins that can profoundly affect our pets’ health are hidden, and we may unknowingly contribute to the load of toxins our pets’ have in their bodies. While toxins are bad for us, they can be devastating to our pets for several reasons.

First, pets are generally smaller than we are, with smaller organs of elimination (e.g., liver, kidneys, lungs). When exposed to toxins, their bodies have to work much harder than ours do to eliminate them. Second, pets have a shorter life span. They don’t have the luxury of time that we have for their bodies to eliminate toxins as gradually. Also, our pets can’t talk to us to let us know when something in their food or their environment is making them feel sick. They can’t switch their own food or decide to stop using a household cleaner that irritates their sinuses or lungs. Our pets rely on us 100% to reduce the number and amount of toxins they encounter.

So what can you do to minimize the toxins in your pets’ lives and help them eliminate the toxic load they have in their bodies?

Click here to continue reading this article online and find out the Sixteen Steps to Detox Your Pet.

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Dental Care for Pets

Keeping your dog or cat’s teeth and gums healthy will go a long way to preventing not only bad breath, periodontal disease, and an uncomfortable or even painful mouth, but also more serious chronic conditions such as kidney disease, liver disease, heart conditions and joint problems.

The normal adult dog has 42 teeth, while the adult cat has 30. These carnivorous (meat-eating) teeth are very sharp and highly specialized. In the wild, these teeth would perform a variety of tasks such as grooming (the 6 small incisors at the front of each jaw), grasping and killing prey (the 4 long canines, also called “fangs”), and crushing and shearing the meat off the prey’s bones to eat (the pointy molars and premolars along the sides of the jaws, also called “cheek teeth”).

In the wild, the carnivore’s diet and eating habits keep the teeth clean and strong. However, the typical diet of a domestic pet—typically commercial dry or canned food—does not. Therefore, proper dental care throughout your pet’s life is essential to optimal health.

Dental disease is the #1 most common health problem seen by veterinarians. By the age of 3, virtually all dogs and cats have some degree of dental disease, ranging from a mild accumulation of tartar to severe infection and tooth loss. All pets benefit from an annual dental exam, as well as cleaning if needed, but it is also important for you to take care of your pet’s teeth at home.

Within hours after brushing or cleaning, bacteria start to re-colonize the surface of the teeth. They secrete substances to attach themselves more firmly, and to protect themselves from the immune system. The combination of bacteria and their secretions is called plaque. If plaque is not removed, minerals in the saliva turn it into calculus, more commonly called tartar, within 48 hours.

Some of the substances secreted by mouth bacteria cause inflammation of the gums (gingiva), resulting in gingivitis. Untreated, inflammation can progress and even break down tissues in the mouth, leading to periodontal disease. Eventually, infection and erosion cause the teeth to decay, abscess or fracture. Decayed, broken, and abscessed teeth are very painful, and may hinder the animal from taking in enough nourishment. They also deteriorate the pet’s quality of life.

There are other serious health risks associated with tooth decay. Bacteria living in these “slums” can enter the bloodstream and seed infection in critical organs like the heart, liver, and kidneys; as well as causing inflammation in joints and other areas. In my personal experience, many a cranky critter has become happy and playful again after hidden dental problems were corrected.

While diet plays a role in dental disease, there is also a genetic component. Some breeds, such as Abyssinian cats and toy-breed dogs, have a tendency to develop severe gingivitis. Bulldogs, boxers, pugs, and Persian cats often have overcrowded, cavity-prone teeth due to their “smushed” faces. Some pets may need very little dental care, while others might require full cleanings under anesthesia once or even twice a year.

Excellent dental health requires help from your veterinarian as well as a firm commitment to home care from you. If your pet already has dental disease, the first step is to have his teeth cleaned under anesthesia by your veterinarian. While no surgery is risk-free, modern anesthetics, together with appropriate monitoring and supportive care, make this a very low risk procedure, even for older animals (who usually need it the most!).

Steps to prevention of dental and periodontal disease:

1. Healthy Diet

A healthy diet is important for dental health, just as it is for overall well-being. The healthier the animal, the better the immune system, and the less infection will develop. A meat-based diet is essential as meat helps maintain a healthier mouth environment.

However, one persistent myth that is completely false is the notion that “dry food cleans the teeth.” The best that can be said for dry food is that it may produce slightly less tartar than canned food. Pets eating only dry food can and do develop the same dental problems as those who “never touch the stuff.” One study showed that food itself is completely irrelevant; test subjects developed tartar even when fed by stomach tube, even when no food touched the mouth at all! There are a few dry foods that do live up to the claim, but they consist of very large, specially-textured kibbles designed to fracture so that the fragments scrape tartar off the teeth. However, the major ingredients are poor quality (by-product meal, corn gluten meal, corn meal or ground yellow corn, cellulose; Friskies even contains glycerin, a form of sugar – now, how is that good for teeth?!). Plus, these foods suffer from all the usual problems of dry food (extreme processing, high carbohydrates, low moisture). Because of the health risks associated with corn-based dry food (such as obesity, diabetes, allergies, arthritis, FLUTD, and kidney disease), we don’t carry them, or recommend them as a regular diet.

2. Brushing at Home

The best way of removing plaque and preventing dental disease at home is brushing the teeth. Ideally, you should brush your pet’s teeth daily. Brushing removes plaque on the outside of the crown (above-gum portion) of the tooth, and stimulates the gums to keep them healthy. However, plaque can still accumulate below the gum line; so an annual check-up is still an essential part of your pet’s dental health. Even if you don’t see any problems, it is best to have your pet’s teeth professionally cleaned prior to beginning a home-care program, to make sure there are no painful areas in the mouth that might jeopardize your success.

Your veterinarian can show you how to brush your pet’s teeth, but it may still turn into a battle at home, which is the last thing you want! Here are a few tips to get you going:

* Buy a finger brush and toothpaste designed for pets. Do not use a human brush or even a pet brush on a stick; these can severely injure the gums without you knowing it (other than by your pet’s very negative reaction!). A finger brush is a soft plastic cone with bristles on one side that fits over the tip of your finger. It is very safe and can make brushing tolerable or even pleasant for your pet.
* Cats especially love having their faces rubbed at the corners of the mouth (because of the scent glands there), and most dogs tolerate it and even enjoy it. Gently rubbing in that area is a good place to start. Each time you do, run your finger a little farther forward along the lips.
* Gradually extend your rubbing by slipping your finger under the lips and massaging the gums gently. Take this step slowly and back off immediately if your pet objects. You don’t want to make this an unpleasant experience, so let the pet dictate how fast you progress.
* Put a little pet toothpaste (never human toothpaste!) on your finger when you’re rubbing. Most pets love the taste.
* Put the brush on your finger with a little toothpaste. This will be only slightly different from what you’ve been doing and should be tolerated. If not, remove the brush and go back a step. A piece of damp gauze can substitute for the finger brush.

It’s best to brush every day; then if you miss a day, it’s not a crisis. However, if you plan to brush every other day, and then miss a session, you’ve lost several days that cannot be reclaimed, and plaque will have a good head start.

3. Dental Care Products

There are many dental care products marketed for pets. Oral rinses, gels, and water additives will not control plaque by themselves, although they will help with general dental hygiene. The following are my favorite dental products for pets, based on experience and recommendations from veterinary dental experts:

Wysong’s “Denta-Treat” is a cheese-flavored powder that you can sprinkle on the pet’s food or use as toothpaste:

Triple Pet Oral Care Products include specially designed pet toothbrushes and pastes.

ProDen PlaqueOff is another food additive that promotes dental health:

TrueBlue Fast and Fresh Dental Swipes, while not as good as a thorough brushing, can be useful when time is short or when you’re traveling:

Most dog chews, including nylon bones, rawhide bones, hooves, real bones, and other hard chews, tend not to significantly reduce plaque accumulation, and some can actually cause a dog’s teeth to fracture. Broken teeth are a source of infection and pain to the dog, and expense to you when they have to be extracted. If a dog swallows a chunk of any of them, it can cause a life-threatening intestinal blockage. If you have a “ball dog,” don’t let it chew on tennis balls; the tough synthetic “fuzz” rapidly wears teeth down. Thin chews, such as rawhide strips and pig ears, are fine, and may have some benefit by mechanically abrading off the tartar, but be aware they add quite a bit of fat to the diet.

Most treats do not do much for dental health, even if they are labeled “Tartar Control.” The exception to the rule is Feline Greenies, which I can tell you from personal experience can work wonders in just a few weeks.

4. Regular Check Ups

Regular check ups are vitally important, especially for the older animal. At least once a month, you can give your pet a general dental wellness check; be sure to lift the lips enough to see the farthest-back teeth, which are often the source of trouble. If you smell an unpleasant odor, see any redness in the gums, or find a lot of tartar buildup on the teeth, then seek the help of a veterinarian. Supplementing with Vitamin C and CoEnzyme Q10 can help promote the health and healing of gum tissue as well. Every 6-12 months (depending on your pet’s age and history), have your vet do a complete wellness exam and thorough assessment of the mouth.

5. Dental Procedures

If your veterinarian finds tartar build-up or any periodontal disease, consider having a full dental cleaning performed under anesthesia. Your companion will definitely benefit from a healthier and much more comfortable mouth. No matter the age or health of your pet, if there is significant dental disease, it is much preferable to have your vet take care of the problem than to let the problem get worse and cause pain and suffering to your pet.

Great dental care can be the best gift you can give your companion. It requires a commitment of time and effort on your part, but it goes a long, long way toward preventing disease and discomfort; it will help keep your pet healthy and undoubtedly extend her life.

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