Doggie Dental Care: Why Pups Are Like Us. And Why They’re Not

Why Dental Care in People and Pups is Similar…And Very Different.

As both National Pet Dental Health Month and National Children’s Dental Health Month, February is an important month for those pearly whites.

In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at how human dental health and pet dental health are both very similar and very different, both in how disease affects teeth, as well as how dental disease is approached.

How is Dental Disease Similar Between People and Dogs?

The earliest battle in dental health is against plaque build-up and this is similar across the board between people and pets alike.

Plaque, that sticky film that forms on the teeth over the course of the day, is composed of microscopic bits of food, saliva, and bacteria. Over time this bacterial plaque leads to inflammation along the gums, which is called gingivitis.

Blog-dental-3This inflammation caused by bacterial plaque can also extend below the gumline and lead to periodontitis, where the bone keeping teeth in place starts to erode, eventually leading to tooth loss.

On the surface of the teeth, plaque will eventually harden into tartar or calculus if not addressed. At this stage, the yellow/brown tartar can no longer be brushed off, but requires more advanced dental care to remove.

If left untreated, bacterial gingivitis and periodontitis don’t just affect health in the mouth. Once they cause so much inflammation in the mouth, the bacteria can enter the bloodstream and cause problems in other organs, leading to systemic problems throughout the body.

In both pets and people, multiple studies over the years have connected chronic dental disease to cardiovascular (heart) disease, systemic blood infections, liver disease, kidney disease, and insulin resistance contributing to diabetes, to name a few.

How is Dental Disease Different Between Dogs and People?

The Crummy Cavity

The biggest difference between human dental disease and dental disease in pets is the notorious cavity.

In people, dental caries or tooth decay occurs frequently. When the bacteria in plaque are exposed to certain foods, they produce acids that erode away the protective enamel of a tooth, causing a literal hole, or cavity in the tooth.

But interestingly in pets, we rarely ever see true cavities. According to the National Institutes of Health, over 90% of humans between about 25 and 65 years of age get cavities. But in contrast, only about 5% of dogs do. Part of the suspected reason for this big difference is in how our teeth are shaped very differently from our pets.

With the exception of our incisors and canine teeth, human teeth are very flat. They also butt up very close next to each other along their height from the gumline to the tip of the crown, leaving very little space between them (which is why flossing is so important!).

These flat surfaces and close contact between teeth allow for plaque to sit and fester on these surfaces and for acids to progressively bore away at enamel.

Blog-dental-4In dogs, their teeth are largely very sharp and slanted, also described as “conical” in shape. The only exceptions include the last two molars on the top and bottom, with the back half of the third to last molar on the bottom also being at higher risk. These teeth much more resemble a majority of human teeth, being more flat and in closer contact with each other.

The conical shape of a majority of a dog’s teeth, combined with a greater interdental space between them compared to a person’s, is a big part of what contributes to such a low likelihood of dental caries in pets. Dogs also have a slightly higher pH in their mouths, meaning it is less acidic.

The high pH offsets the acid produced by bacteria, preventing the type of acidic erosion so often seen in people.

Cousin of the Cavity

There is a type of lesion also seen in dogs but more commonly recognized in cats, called a resorptive lesion, which closely resembles a cavity when seen on the surface. Resorptive lesions also appear as small holes in the tooth at first. But unlike a cavity, the process is not caused by bacteria.

While the specific cause is still not known and has not been linked to anything in particular, it is thought to be an immune-related process.

Over time, this irreversible resorption process will continue to develop either from the inside or outside of the tooth until the entire tooth painfully dissolves itself and the gums cover it over.

While people can also get resorptive-type lesions, the causes appear to be largely different from those seen in pets.

A Bad Break

The second biggest difference between dogs and people is that worn and fractured teeth are so much more common in dogs.

Part of this is simply because a majority of a dog’s toys are chewable items. And if you don’t provide a chewable item, a dog may always find something else to chew on, like a stick. While this can be a normal behavior, we have to control what our dogs are chomping on.

Generally, harder objects like bones are too hard for dog’s teeth and more often lead to fractures, especially of the very large pointy premolars on the top, called the carnassials.

In people, our roots are very short and straight compared to a dog’s which are long and angled. This keeps their teeth in their mouth quite a bit more successfully, which is necessary for a predator trying to catch moving prey as dogs in the wild or their close cousins wolves and coyotes, must do.

Blog-dental-decayBut a tooth is going to give somewhere under enough strain, and so usually this is going to be some part of the visible crown that cracks, especially where it’s thinner near the tip.

If a tooth is fractured far enough down from the tip of the crown, this exposes the pulp cavity to all of that bacteria in the mouth. This can ultimately lead to infection and compromise of the tooth.

Worn Out

Tooth wear on a dog’s teeth also occurs secondary to what a dog is chewing on. Some objects can be very abrasive. Surprising to most, your common tennis ball can be one of the worst offenders. All of those microscopic fibers, coupled with dirt accumulation over time, act like sandpaper on a dog’s teeth. Abrasive rope toys can have a similar effect too.

Soft but durable rubber/plastic toys are the best type of toy to provide to your dog. The material has enough give to avoid fractures, is soft enough to not be abrasive, but durable enough to not get chewed up into small pieces and lead to a potential digestive obstruction risk.

How is Dental Care Similar Between People and Pets?

Brushing: Always the Basics

Because plaque and tartar buildup occur in both people and pets, brushing is a hallmark of regular care in both cases.

In people, brushing at least twice a day is recommended to prevent that plaque build-up that happens in earnest within several hours after the last brushing. In dogs, the gold standard for brushing isn’t any different. If you can get your dog into such a routine, you’ll be doing your best friend the best favor to prevent progression of dental disease.

But since it can be a struggle sometimes, the minimum recommendation for dogs is brushing at least 3 times a week. Any less frequent than that and you’re accomplishing very little to slow down the formation of tartar on the teeth.

Dog Dental Cleaning Basics

Blog-dental-1And while brushing is the best preventative to keep tartar at bay, once that tartar develops, brushing cannot be used to remove it. This is why dental cleanings with a dentist twice a year are recommended for people. Many of the same tools human dentists use to clean teeth on the surface are also used by veterinarians during dental cleaning procedures.

During dental procedures for both pets and people, you have many of the same components. There’s dental x-rays to look at tooth roots and the health of the surrounding bone, probing the mouth to look for deep pockets caused by periodontal disease, scaling that tartar off the ultrasonic scaler, and polishing the teeth to make them nice and pearly white.

How is Dental Care Different Between People and Pets?

Fluoride and Flavors

Many folks out there reading will immediately recognize that the biggest difference in pet dental care is that cleaning procedures are performed under anesthesia. We’ll get to that in just a second, but first, there is a major difference just with brushing and home care.

Fluoride is a mainstay of reducing dental disease in people. Fluoride toothpaste is a standard and drinking water has been treated with fluoride going as far back as the 1940’s.

But pets are very sensitive to fluoride, so their toothpaste, which also tends to have a carnal assortment of flavors like liver and beef instead of bubblegum, are fluoride-free.

In pets, we also have the option of bolstering home care using dental treats and oral water additives. For a full list of products found to most significantly reduce plaque and tartar build-up, see the list of Veterinary Oral Health Council approved products.

Dog Dental Cleanings: Why is Anesthesia Standard?

Even with some degree of regular home care, a full dental cleaning will eventually be recommended by your veterinarian. And yes, unlike for most cases in people, dental cleanings for pets are done under full anesthesia.

While on the surface this may immediately seem extreme, it only takes a review of what occurs during a dental cleaning–whether you’re a dog or a person–to understand why anesthetic dental procedures have been the standard in veterinary care for a long time.

When you go to the dentist yourself, the first thing done typically is a set of dental x-rays. They stick the bite wing in your mouth, you sit down in a chair, and while you stay very still, they rotate the x-ray machine around your head a couple of times to get the necessary views.

After that, you head into the dental chair for the hygienist or an assistant and the dentist to have a look in your mouth. Your mouth is propped open or you have to keep it open while they check each tooth in a couple of places to see what the depth of the space is between the gums and the tooth, which is called the gingival sulcus. A deep gingival sulcus, usually greater than 2-3 millimeters, indicates that concerning periodontal disease is present.

The dentist also checks for the presence of cavities or other concerns. After that, they have a chat with you about the findings and what you’re in store for, including estimated costs and what portion your insurance will be able to cover.

If we try to reproduce these steps with a dog, we immediately run into problems. Sticking a bite wing into a pup’s mouth, or in the case of veterinary medicine, the x-ray plate itself, and asking him to stay perfectly still and not chew it while a machine is placed an inch from his head is a lot to ask for.

Blog-dental-5The probing part is also problematic. While a vet can get a good look at a dog’s mouth on the surface, poking the gums with a pointy metal instrument is another matter. As anyone who’s been to the dentist knows, even that part isn’t the most comfortable.

Even under sedation, a dog can react to poking and prodding, and especially anything painful in the mouth.

The other dilemma then faced is if you need anesthesia to safely get a full dental evaluation, you need to then be fully prepared to take the necessary measures to address any dental disease present, including removing diseased teeth.

If we don’t get a full and complete dental evaluation done, the same as a human dentist requires, then a significant amount of disease may be missed and not addressed. What a veterinarian can see from a basic exam of the mouth and teeth during an annual physical is still missing about 50% of what’s there. And periodontal disease in dogs can sometimes be present under the gumline without severe disease visible on the surface.

How Dog Dental Cleanings Can Differ

In both pets and people, the full dental evaluation is done first. However, while any procedures needed may then happen at a later date, we don’t want to wake a pet up from anesthesia after x-rays and mouth charting are done, only to put them under again later. It is far more efficient and easier on the pet to get this done all at once.

This is why, after x-rays and charting are completed, the vet will then typically call a pup parent while the technician or nurse continues to scale and clean the teeth, to discuss further measures that need to be taken, like possible tooth extractions, so that those can then be done immediately after.

And this gets us to another reason why anesthesia is important. Try to imagine all of the things that take place when you have crowns or fillings put in. Often, one or more local anesthetics are used by injecting a needle into your gums. It’s not pleasant.

After that, there’s lots of high speed drilling, water spraying, suction, propping open your mouth, and other uncomfortable things. This is why many people don’t like going to the dentist. In fact, I have heard more than once from a friend that they wish getting “knocked out” for dental work was a more common option for them.

Even under sedation, a dog would not be able to withstand the discomfort of a local nerve block, and the whine of a high speed drill alone would rouse a pup out of it.

Other Differences in Dental Care

Other differences in dental care can include the types of procedures common in pets versus people.

In people, cavity fillings and crowns are very common. But in pets, since dental caries are comparatively rare, fillings and crowns are also uncommonly needed.

With bone loss and periodontal disease in dogs being the most common problems seen, veterinarians are trained to extract or remove teeth that have lost too much bone or have root exposure. Are procedures available to save such teeth? There are, but these techniques, like bone grafts to try to re-establish lost bone, are considered very advanced and not always successful.

Similar to human dentistry where more advanced procedures may be done by a periodontal specialist or oral surgeon instead of your regular dentist, advanced procedures in pets are performed by a veterinary dental specialist.

Doing Your Dental Part at Home

Blog-dental-6While in people, full dental cleanings are still needed twice a year even when you brush your teeth often, dental cleanings in pets are typically recommended annually, or as often as the degree of dental disease calls for, keeping in mind a pet’s risk for anesthesia.

Veterinarians do their best to minimize the risk for anesthesia by making sure a recent physical exam is up to date and ensuring a full lab work panel has been done to look at organ function often within 30 days or less of a planned procedure.

But is anesthesia scary for a lot of folks? Sure it is, because while a majority of pets do well for anesthetic cleanings, there are certainly always potential risks involved.

But the good news is that in pets, the number and frequency of anesthetic dental cleanings can often be reduced significantly by regular dental care at home. Try to brush your pet’s teeth as often as possible. If you need help, check out our previous article on How to Brush a Dog’s Teeth in 5 Steps.

As the article says, start slow, gradually work up to more frequency, be patient, and make it a positive experience. You can also combine brushing with dental treats and oral water additives to keep those pearly whites as healthy as possible.

Keeping up with dental care in pets isn’t always easy but putting in the effort at home can certainly pay off. Your dog’s teeth, as well as her body as a whole, will certainly thank you.

Although as mentioned, the full extent of dental disease cannot be seen on a veterinary physical exam alone, a general idea can usually be determined as well as any more serious concerns like bad gingivitis, severe tartar, or broken teeth.

So, if you’re not certain about what your pup’s teeth might look like, make sure to make it a discussion topic at your dog’s next annual or biannual exam, and chat about what steps may be needed with your veterinarian.

5 Highly Successful Health Tips for Basic Pet Care

We love our pets. And there’s nothing better than seeing our pups and kitties happy, healthy, and being themselves. But keeping them fed properly, frollicking, and free from illness isn’t always easy, and takes some know-how. In this article, we’re going to cover 5 big categories in preventative health that are important to be thinking about on a daily basis for your pet. Continue reading “5 Highly Successful Health Tips for Basic Pet Care”

Why Spay or Neuter Your Dog or Cat? Here’s 5 Important Reasons

So you’ve got that new puppy or kitten and you’ve been agonizing over getting him or her “fixed” and when. Perhaps your breeder has told you one thing and your next door neighbor has told you another. It’s also possible you adopted a pet from a shelter or rescue (for which we’d like to say thank you!) and the decision to spay/neuter was already made for you but you’re interested in this topic all the same.

In this article, we’re not going to discuss in detail exactly when to spay or neuter. The recommendations can vary depending on whether your pet is a cat or dog, male or female. And for dogs, things can vary further based on a pup’s breed, her expected mature adult weight, and other circumstances. Because there can be several factors at play, this is a discussion best left for you to have with your own veterinarian.

But why neuter a dog or cat at all? Why spay?

You may think you know some of the reasons, or maybe you think of it as just “something you do” when you get a new pet. But there’s probably at least two or three reasons you’ll read about in the following article that you didn’t realize were important to consider. And there are many folks out there who don’t see a need or reason to spay or neuter at all. This article is for you too. If you decide not to spay or neuter your pet, it’s really important to make an informed decision and know the risks of not having this procedure done.

And yes, because cost, anesthesia, and the word “surgery” are concerning to almost everyone, we’ll talk about this as well.

Important Reasons to Spay or Neuter


Nature finds a way. And when a female dog goes into heat, her main goal is to find a male. Likewise, an intact male dog is always on the lookout for the ladies. In either case, they try to find a way to get to each other. Cats can be even more of a challenge, because they aren’t limited to 1-2 heat cycles a year. Cats are induced ovulators and can go into heat at any time if the conditions are right. If there’s a male tomcat that slinks around your house, your intact female kitty is likely to go into heat just because he’s around.

For both dogs and cats, this means that any measures you might normally take to keep your pet indoors or kept to the confines of your property are going to be under strain. A small weakness in the fence, forgetting to completely close the door, leaving the window slightly open, even a light adjustment on the leash can all be taken advantage of and it happens more often than you might think. Before you know it, your pet is off down the block, picking up scents no human being could ever appreciate.

Roaming might be the single most important reason to consider spaying or neutering from a pet’s safety standpoint. It’s also the least thought of. If your pup or kitty gets out, there’s no barrier he won’t cross to find that willing female, and vice versa. This includes busy streets with lots of traffic. It includes encountering other roaming dogs and cats and the risk of fights.

Roaming is also a common reason why pets simply get lost, can’t find their way home, or get picked up by local animal control. This is one of the most important reasons to have a pet microchipped. Very few pets without a microchip ever get returned to their owners. Sure, a rabies tag can be traced to a veterinary practice and a home address tag says it all, but these can often get lost or even more importantly, they can be intentionally removed.

Now fortunately, a dog can’t usually get pregnant on her first heat cycle, but she’ll still try and thus the danger of roaming behavior is still present that early. And don’t be fooled by some reports that dogs never go into heat until 12-14 months. This can happen as early as 6 months, with many dogs experiencing their first heat between 7 and 9 months.

As for cats? Well, lets just say that my own three cats, two boys and one girl, were showing signs of mating behavior at 5 months. This was also in December when cats, as traditionally held “long day breeders” or “spring/summer breeders” aren’t “supposed” to be interested in mating. It just goes to show that no prescribed pattern is ever guaranteed in nature.

But fortunately, within a couple of months of spaying or neutering and a large drop in circulating sex hormones, the urge to roam evaporates in most dogs. Cats can be a little different because they naturally prefer to roam, hunt, and seek out other cats, but it should still make a difference. According to a research team with the University of Illinois that tracked a group of 42 cats for a two year period, most indoor/outdoor cats with a home stay near their own property but still roam an average area of about 5 acres. This is far less than a square mile but still amounts to over 200,000 square feet. One feral cat they tracked roamed an area of about 2 square miles.

But you would think that without mating on the brain, a domestic cat would be far more likely to just stick to his territory to defend it, hunt what he finds in the backyard, and do little else.

Population Management: Reducing Disease

bigstock-Portrait-Of-Two-Cats-Brown-An-239843755If you’ve ever been to a county animal shelter, chances are it looked pretty full. Depending on the state and the county, a shelter might be very well equipped and staffed to handle a large volume of stray animals, or it might not.

Many shelters in the United States are suffering from an inordinate volume of incoming dogs and cats and limited resources to handle them. Overflowing shelters lead to stressed and scared animals, disease outbreaks, and unfortunately, the euthanasia of many otherwise healthy potential pets.

There are a lot of rescue groups out there doing good work to get dogs and cats out of so-called “kill” shelters and into good homes, but they can’t save them all and the cycle is perpetual.

In the United States, we take things for granted. In Caribbean and Central American countries I’ve visited, dogs and cats largely roam free. A majority are malnourished, suffering from parasites and disease. And in addition to diseases suffered just by unfortunate stray animals, the health risk to people is quite high when a large population of animals around them is suffering from malnutrition, parasitism, and disease.

So while it may seem like a hard line to take, population control in our pet population is extremely important. And while there are other circumstances that contribute to this problem, like pet abandonment, spaying and neutering goes a long way to reducing the number of homeless pets

Cancer Prevention

bigstock-Lazy-Or-Sick-Pet-Dog-Relaxing--232234681It may sound overly simplistic to say that if reproductive organs are removed through spaying or neutering, that any risk of cancer associated with those organs is thus removed 100%, but it’s true. A dog can’t get testicular cancer if he no longer has the family jewels.

But what I often have a conversation with pet owners about has little to do with cancer of the reproductive organs themselves, like the ovaries and uterus. It’s breast cancer. Treating breast cancer in humans has made some leaps and bounds over the last decade, but breast cancer in dogs is still a bit of a gamble and a dog’s risk for developing it depends greatly on when she is spayed.

I saw two dogs, each diagnosed with mammary adenocarcinoma, follow very different paths. The first dog had a lumpectomy but passed away six months later from metastatic spread. Surgery wasn’t an affordable option for the second dog, but even with the same diagnosis, she was still trucking along a year later.

Mammary cancer in dogs is unpredictable. But even without metastatic spread, it can be ugly. They can develop large, firm, ulcerated masses that can be quite painful. And since dogs typically have 8-10 mammary glands, there are far more opportunities for masses to develop. Full mastectomies in humans are notoriously painful and involve a difficult recovery, but that’s only for one or two glands. Now consider having what’s called a chain mastectomy where all 8-10 glands on one side are removed. Then the other side has to be done several weeks later. This is often necessary in dogs if cancerous masses are spread out through several glands.

The great news is that if spaying a dog is timed right, the risk of developing mammary cancer is very nearly zero and all depends on the heat cycle.

If a dog is spayed before her first heat cycle, typically anywhere from 7-14 months, the ability to prevent mammary cancer is nearly 100%. If we do allow the first heat cycle to occur but spay a dog before her second (which typically doesn’t occur again for at least several months), the prevention rate drops into the 90s, but is still quite high. But after the third heat cycle, the prevention rate drops down near 50% and continues to drop.

Now, deciding when to spay, as I said earlier, is a conversation best had with your veterinarian. In some breeds, like Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds, there’s data showing that spaying later may be more beneficial for their skeletal growth and avoiding certain kinds of orthopedic disease later in life. I typically discuss balancing the risks and benefits for spaying and neutering and matching those with a pup parent’s goals. You need to have the same conversation with your vet to make the most informed decision.

The Dreaded Pyometra

bigstock-Dog-Sitting-In-Tranquil-Field-210873283Some folks may have heard of a pyometra while others may have not. Essentially, it is an infection of the uterus, which fills up with pus, and can only happen to a dog during the period shortly after she finishes a heat cycle. When a dog is in heat, white blood cells are blocked from entering the uterus so that sperm can have safe passage. After heat is over, progesterone kicks in and the uterine wall becomes thickened to prepare for pregnancy.

But if pregnancy doesn’t happen after several heat cycles, the uterine wall can continue to thicken and eventually can develop cystic structures. These cysts are the perfect environment for bacteria to grow, and a secondary infection develops.

A pyometra is a very dangerous condition and by itself is often discussed with pet owners as an important criterion for spaying. And with good reason. Some pyometras can be “open” meaning the infected material, usually fluid, can drain to the outside. But because one of progesterone’s jobs is to keep the cervix closed, this infected fluid more often has nowhere to go. The uterus then starts to fill up like a water balloon. And as we all know, over-filling a water balloon will eventually lead to it bursting open.

If a pyometra ruptures into the abdomen, which I have unfortunately seen happen, the spread of infection is often too great and severe for a dog to recover from.

A veterinarian will suspect a pyometra if a female dog, recently out of heat, presents with a high fever, decreased appetite, and lethargy. We can confirm the presence of a pyometra using x-rays and/or ultrasound.

But even if a pyometra is caught prior to it rupturing, the only way to treat a dog with this condition is to surgically remove the infected reproductive tract. Sometimes an open pyometra can be treated cautiously with antibiotics, but these often develop into closed pyometras and no pup with a closed pyometra will ever recover without surgery. And surgery as you can imagine, is risky. If the infected uterus leaks or breaks open before it can be fully removed from the abdomen, a pup’s chances of successful recovery are much lower.

So now you can understand why pyometras are so dangerous. A pet owner is given the choice between a risky, expensive surgery when their dog is already sick, or euthanasia, which is often the only other humane choice we can offer.

Those Crazy Hormones: Behavior

bigstock--173404667When I think about canine behavior when it comes to sex hormones, I can’t help but think about Cousin Eddie from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. He laughingly tells Clark Griswold that his dog, affectionately named “Snots” (”you ain’t never seen a set on a dog like this one’s got, Clark”), that “if the mood catches him right, he’ll grab your leg and just go to town.”

Spaying and neutering can certainly help with some behaviors, including the leg-humping behavior Snots is fond of. It can also reduce to some degree a dog or cat’s territorial nature and may make him or her less wild and crazy. It does virtually eliminate a male tomcat’s territorial habit of urine spraying around your house.

But don’t have a high expectation that spaying or neutering is going to fix a majority of behavioral problems your pet may have. The only solution to most behavioral issues is appropriate training and conditioning at an early age. If you have an older dog that has come to you with some pre-existing behavioral concerns, ask your veterinarian for recommendations for good in-home trainers in your area, or seek the assistance of a veterinary behaviorist.

Okay, I Get the Benefits. But What About Cost? What About Anesthesia Risk?

bigstock--135597248In practice, I typically encounter four reasons why a pet owner is hesitant to spay or neuter their pet and I think it’s important to address them, because they may be the same reservations you have.

Cost Complications

The cost for a spay can vary, but is usually a couple hundred dollars, sometimes more. Neuters are much less. Why? A spay is an abdominal surgery while a neuter is not. So it certainly is something to plan for financially when you have a new puppy or kitten. But the good news is that there are likely a couple options available in your area.

Spay/neuter clinics are found commonly now, and their sole purpose is to provide a spay/neuter service with a licensed veterinarian at a reduced cost. It is important to note though, that spay/neuter clinics often do not provide pre-operative bloodwork, have very basic anesthesia monitoring (or sometimes none at all), and provide minimal aftercare. Your own veterinary clinic is likely to provide a higher care standard. This is a situation where you have to carefully weigh the risks vs. the benefits. Local rescue groups also may be able to help at least cover some of the cost of a spay or neuter surgery, especially if you adopt through them.

My final thought about cost is to consider how much a spay costs (a couple hundred to a few hundred dollars usually) in comparison to the cost of a pyometra surgery or mastectomy. These surgeries, often carrying a higher degree of difficulty to perform and a higher risk to the pet, are always much more expensive, usually costing at least a couple thousand dollars. From that perspective, spaying at an early age is a bargain.

Anesthesia Anxiety

bigstock-Veterinary-Clinic-98187251The term anesthesia is very scary for pet owners. Some of you out there may even have had a pet pass away while having an anesthetic procedure done, which is truly heartbreaking for all involved, including the doctor and hospital staff.

Anesthesia is not without risk, but mitigating risk is what it’s all about. Older pets can be at higher risk, because of other diseases they may be experiencing and changes in their heart, kidney, or liver function. Younger pets, by contrast, often have far lower risk because they have yet to develop these complications.

But even so, it’s important for any pet to have an updated exam and bloodwork prior to any anesthetic procedure, even something as routine as a spay or neuter. It’s rare, but I have postponed spays and neuters based on labwork findings due to concern about a possible abnormality a pet was born with that we didn’t know about yet, like a congenital liver shunt or kidney disease.

I also think many pet owners feel that we have no control over a pet’s well-being while they’re under anesthesia. Almost like we say a quick prayer, get started, and hope nothing bad happens. But anesthesia is not like this at all. In a hospital setting, a pet’s heart-rate, breathing, blood pressure, and depth of anesthesia are all very carefully and continuously monitored. Any changes in the appropriate and safe patterns for these parameters are addressed long before they develop into serious problems. In effect, we have better “control” over a pet’s vital function while they’re under anesthesia than at any other time.

So while there are of course no guarantees for anything in life, anesthesia is typically very safe, especially for a young pet, when we have reduced risk as much as possible through proper pre-surgical examination, labwork, and careful monitoring.

Also remember that since spays and neuters are very common surgical procedures, that surgical time is also typically short compared to other types of anesthetic procedures. A short surgical time also reduces overall risk. Think again about the risk of performing surgery on a very sick dog with a pyometra, or a 10 year old dog with mammary cancer. The surgical risk is much higher for pyometras and mastectomies and surgical time is doubled, if not tripled.

A Bit on Breeding

bigstock-Dog-With-Puppies-120625430A third reason I hear from pet owners why they don’t want to spay or neuter their dog or cat is because they would like to use them for breeding. If this is a pet owner’s goal, I typically make sure they understand the risks posed by not spaying or neutering, and that they have some kind of a plan in place. For some folks, breeding their dog (and yes, sometimes their cat) may seem like a good idea with a healthy financial incentive, but it can become more trouble than expected if you don’t know what you’re doing.

I Should Do What, Now?

The fourth and final barrier I encounter to spaying and neutering is simply a lack of perceived need to do so. Some folks look at it as “unnatural”, others may have grown up with pets that were never “fixed” and just don’t understand the importance. Yet others may have emigrated from another country where spaying and neutering on a widespread scale simply isn’t a thing. For these folks, I simply have to review the points we’ve just discussed in this article, as sometimes just further education on the subject goes a long way.

Please Spay or Neuter Your Pet. It’s Important!

Overall, I do hope this article has been educational and helpful to you. Perhaps it’s cleared up some misunderstandings, or raised some points you hadn’t thought about before. But as always, it’s best to discuss spaying or neutering with your own veterinarian to develop the best plan for your pet.

How to Catch 10 Common Dog Health Problems Early

When your pup isn’t feeling well, it can be very distressing.

But what can be even more distressing, other than seeing your little guy uncomfortable, is not knowing why it’s happening or when to have it checked out.

Following, we’ll be covering several common dog health problems, including some common causes. Our main focus is going to be how to recognize these illnesses and catch them early.

Just remember, that a lot of general symptoms can have multiple causes and no online article can tell you everything you need to know. If you’re seeing any of these health concerns for your dog, even if they seem minor, consider scheduling with your veterinarian.

Following are 10 health problems commonly seen in dogs, how to recognize that a problem exists, and how to know when to have your vet take a look.

The Big O’s (Overweight, Obese, Overfeeding)

Many folks equate feeding their dog to showing affection, which makes this a tricky topic. The best thing to do is to remain vigilant for signs of early weight gain and discuss how to get back to a healthy weight with your veterinarian if your pooch keeps gaining and you’re at a loss how to stop it.

To catch weight gain early, your pup should maintain a slight “Coke” bottle shape. From the top, there should be a gradual dip inwards from the last rib to the hips. From the side, your dog’s belly should tuck upwards from the last rib towards the groin.

Now, we’ll add in your dog’s ribs as an indicator. You actually should be able to feel your dog’s ribs, at least a little bit. But what’s “okay” and what’s “too much”?

A fun and useful comparison is to use your own fist as a model. Run your hand over your knuckles where they poke out at the top. If your dog’s ribs feel like this, he may be underweight. Now feel along the back of your hand near your wrist. It’s much harder to feel the bones of your hand without pressing hard. For your dog, this would be a concern for her being overweight. Now feel along the top surface of your fingers, just in front of your knuckles. You can feel the bones of your fingers, but they’re not poking out at you. This is exactly what we want a dog’s ribs to feel like.

Check your dog often, especially at times of the year where his activity level might be lower (like during the winter). If you’re unsure where your dog’s weight falls, many vet clinics will let you come in for a weight check and you can see if your pup has gained or lost compared to his previous weight. Your vet can guide you on feeding amounts and weight loss.

Those Irritating Ears: Ear infections

One of the most common ailments I see in dogs is ear infections. Ears can be infected with either bacteria or yeast, a type of fungus. A mix of both organisms is not uncommon.

There are two main reasons for ear infections. The first, which is the easiest to address, happens after a dog gets water down his ear from a bath or after swimming. The excess moisture and warmth leads to microorganism overgrowth.

The second is more complex, which is an underlying skin allergy. Skin allergies in dogs are more like eczema in people, which is an immune-mediated condition. Don’t forget that the skin is a functioning organ just like the heart or kidneys. When the skin encounters allergens, it tries to combat them with inflammatory cells. Unfortunately, this also makes the skin red, broken, and itchy. This change in the skin allows for bacteria and yeast to overgrow, perpetuating the problem.

Ear infections can happen quickly. To stay ahead of them, I recommend cleaning your dog’s ears once weekly with an approved ear cleaner that’s alkalinizing and drying. Squirt some ear solution into his ear, massage at the base of the ear, then wipe out what you can with a cotton ball. Avoid using substances like vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, or rubbing alcohol in your pooch’s ears. Also avoid doing any deep cleaning at home using Q-tips, as there can be a risk to cause damage to the eardrum.

Once weekly cleaning, even if you don’t get much debris out, will at least keep you acquainted with the appearance and smell of your dog’s ears. If you start noticing increased redness/irritation, brown debris developing, and/or a foul odor coming from one or both of her ears, it’s time to see your vet.

The Small, Mighty, and Itchy: Fleas

dog scratchingFleas are very small creatures but they pack a really annoying punch. Fleas can be found outdoors on small rodents (though they can’t survive for long off a host) and can thus easily catch a ride on your dog and be brought inside.

Most folks that endure a flea infestation pray it never happens again. It can sometimes take 2 months or more to eliminate an infestation. If your dog sets up with fleas and brings them indoors, they lay eggs under furniture, between floorboards, and in carpet fibers. In a couple of weeks, the eggs pupate and then hatch into adult fleas to continue the cycle.

While most fleas that infest dogs cannot cause infestations on people, they will still bite people causing a lot of irritation and a public health risk. And this doesn’t just happen in warm months. Fleas commonly overwinter in homes and will seek out furry friends to feed on.

If that’s not enough to get your skin crawling, consider this: if a dog ingests a flea, he can acquire a tapeworm, which is the most common method of dogs developing tapeworm infections.

The best way to avoid a flea problem? Prevent them from infesting your pup in the first place! There are many topical and oral flea preventatives out there. Discuss with your vet which would be the most appropriate.

But It Looked So Tasty: Diarrhea and Vomiting

Diarrhea and vomiting can have many causes. The most preventable are caused by dietary indiscretion and intestinal parasites.

As mentioned in last week’s article, keep an eye on your dog’s environment. Make sure that the kitchen counters are clear of human foods. And remember, a dog’s reach is farther than you think. Also find a trash can that has a lockable lid, to keep all of those table scraps inaccessible, even if the can gets knocked over.

We’re all accustomed to scanning our phones when strolling along with our pups outside to keep busy and up to date on things, but keep an extra eye when he’s nosing through the grass looking for a prime place to do his business. Animal remains, other animals’ fecal material, food scraps, and trash can all be found littering the roadside and on our front lawns. It only takes a second for a curious dog to quickly swallow a captivating foreign object.

Parasite eggs aren’t just present in other dogs’ fecal material, but also throughout our soil. According to DVM360, a website for veterinary professionals, about 15% of potting soil contains hookworm or roundworm eggs. The soil outside also contains eggs for whipworms, and cysts for coccidia and giardia. If your dog likes to root through the dirt (and what dog doesn’t?), she’s at risk.

Many heartworm preventatives have secondary coverage against intestinal parasites. Discuss with your veterinarian which ones provide the most comprehensive coverage for your area. Coccidia and giardia, unfortunately, cannot be completely prevented, but if your dog develops diarrhea, it’s always best to see your vet and have a stool sample checked. As with many things, catching vomiting and diarrhea early can lead to a faster and less expensive resolution.

Holy Halitosis: Periodontal Disease

I find that folks are either very concerned about the state of their dog’s teeth, or not concerned enough (kind of like with weight!). Studies have shown that dental disease, similar to people, can contribute to disease in other organ systems. Bacteria that develops and accumulates in the mouth can travel through the bloodstream and set up shop in the cardiovascular system on heart valve leaflets, in the kidneys, and other places.

Brushing is the single best preventative method to employ. While you can start at any time, it’s best to start when your dog is very young and incorporate it with his training.

Brushing Tips!

Dog 11To start a brushing routine, make sure to get dog toothpaste. Human toothpaste, which contains fluoride, is not appropriate or safe to use in dogs. Start with putting some of the toothpaste on your finger, and get him used to the flavor and motion. Do this for a few days, then transition into using a brush. There are many brush types, but either a toddler toothbrush, which is small and soft, or a finger brush, which is available at many retailers can work best. The finger brush allows for an easier transition.

When brushing, start at the gumline and brush downwards. Try to reach all the teeth, but focus on the canines and large teeth in the back. While brushing once daily would be truly amazing, it’s not practical for most. Set a goal of twice a week to start and go from there.

Dental treats are the second best tool in the arsenal against periodontal disease. Dental treats that have the Veterinary Oral Health Council seal of approval have shown in trials to reduce plaque and tartar build-up. Look for this seal when shopping for dental treats.

Oral hygiene rinses and water bowl additives can be used but they fall into third place. Because they focus on reducing bacteria load but cannot physically remove plaque and tartar, they are the least effective at preventing dental disease, but are certainly worth incorporating.

Despite a good brushing routine, a dental cleaning under anesthesia may be recommended by your vet based on the amount of calculus and gingivitis present. Your vet will be able to discuss the benefits, risks, and costs associated.

Achy and Creaky Joints: Arthritis

Arthritis in dogs is very common, typically happening when our furry friends get into their senior years. If your pup had an athletic injury earlier in life, or if she has hip dysplasia, these signs can develop earlier.

A common sign of early arthritis is difficulty standing up from a sitting position. You may also notice a limp or reluctance to walk initially, but typically arthritic dogs, like people, can “work” out of it after they get going for a few minutes.

Your vet may be able to determine if your dog has arthritis during an annual wellness exam. It’s important to have arthritis diagnosed, as there are many other conditions that can appear like arthritis, like back pain and neurologic conditions, that would be addressed differently. Also, depending on your dog’s level of discomfort with arthritis, other medications or treatments may be recommended.

While you don’t have to severely scale back your pal’s activity (he still needs to run, play, and be happy!) there shouldn’t be an expectation to continue any high levels of work or competition. Keep an eye out during playtime or jogs if you see signs of slowing down or discomfort. Don’t try to push it.

Joint health supplementation can be very beneficial, even before starting anti-inflammatory or pain medications. The Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Fish Oil are a natural anti-inflammatory and in addition to helping over the long-run with joints, your pup’s skin and coat will look great too!

Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate assist with arthritis by helping to decrease inflammation and promote healthy cartilage, which lines the joint spaces. Many formulations are made for pets, but keep an eye out for the NASC Quality Seal.

Bumpy, Crusty, Flaky Skin: Skin Infections

If you’ve noticed your dog itching and scratching, there could be a few reasons (check fleas above for one of them). But if you notice red bumps or small pustules on the skin of the abdomen or groin, or if your pup has crusty flaky looking areas of his coat (with or without hair loss), a skin infection is possible.

Diagnosing a skin infection requires a vet appointment because your vet will need to look into ruling out other reasons for this appearance (which can include skin mites and another type of fungus, ringworm). However, recognizing potential signs and getting an appointment scheduled earlier rather than later can help shorten the course of treatment and give your pup relief that much faster.

Why do skin infections occur? Very similar to our discussion on ear infections, underlying inflammation and breaks in the skin barrier allow bacteria and yeast to overgrow, causing itching and irritation, which leads to licking, chewing, scratching, and worsening signs. Addressing the infection is usually only the initial part, as determining what underlying food or environmental allergy is present will help reduce future recurrence.

When Ya Gotta Go…: Urinary Tract Infection

Jack Russel peeingIf you notice one day that your dog, who previously has had normal elimination habits, has a pee accident in the house it can be upsetting for both of you. Your dog knows she did something wrong but couldn’t help it, and you now have pee on your beautiful hardwood floor.

Urinary tract infections are a common dog health problem, especially in females. A short, wide diameter urinary tract and close proximity to where fecal material exits sets up for risk. This is especially true of females who squat extremely close to the ground to urinate. And as you can imagine, if your poor girl is just getting over a long bout of diarrhea, the urinary tract may be affected not long after.

Signs of a UTI include increased urgency and frequency of urination, with only small amounts of urine being produced. The urine may have a foul odor and sometimes, folks may notice a slight red tinge to the urine on the floor, indicative of blood from urinary tract inflammation.

If you see a pattern of inappropriate urinary behavior develop, it’s important to have your dog checked out at the vet, who will first check a urine sample for signs of infection and may recommend other testing. As you may have guessed from our other topics, UTIs are common, but there are other conditions that can cause urinary accidents, including bladder stones, incontinence, and behavioral issues, so it’s very important to isolate the cause.

Lumps and Bumps: Skin Growths

I know folks that comb over their dog everyday, checking for fleas, ticks, and even any slight thickened or raised area of skin. And I love this, because a lot of the time, I rely heavily on a pup parent to be able to find these. Ticks can be so small, you’d never find one even if you knew where to look. Skin growths can be the same way.

Now, many skin growths, especially in older dogs, can be glandular growths and other than looking like warts, are usually harmless. Cysts can be similar, in that they break open, and can be disgusting, but are otherwise benign. Fatty tumors, also called lipomas, may grow slowly, but most of the time, do not cause any issues.

But here’s the problem: you can’t tell 100% what these are just by looking at them. That’s why it’s important to catch a new growth early and have your vet evaluate it. One of the first steps we do is to try to get a sample of the cells within the growth using a needle and syringe, to look at under the microscope. This is called a fine needle aspirate. But sometimes, the growth may be so small, that actually removing it and sending it out for identification, is the best plan (and kills two birds with one stone so to speak).

Now, you may feel that a growth the size of a pea is no big deal. And you might be right. But if you notice it growing rapidly over the course of several days or a couple weeks, definitely have your vet weigh in on it. If a growth is identified as one that is concerning and needs to be removed, you’ll be glad you took care of it sooner rather than later, both for your pup’s comfort and recovery, as well as your wallet.

I’m Feeling Wheezy: Coughing

dog uner blanketThere’s a theme running through this article in that many “common” generic health problems like itchy skin and diarrhea may have a simple cause, but then again, may not. Coughing is no different.

Dogs are seen frequently for coughing and what we think is causing it can depend a lot on how old the dog is, where she’s been recently, what season it is, and of course, the nature of the cough. Is it coming from the upper airway near the throat? Or is it in the lower airway, down in the chest?

When coughing needs to be evaluated, depends on two scenarios. The first is when your dog has never coughed before and suddenly starts doing so frequently and regularly. The second is if your dog maybe coughs occasionally, but the frequency of it begins increasing. Even if this is slowly over time, it indicates that something is changing that needs to be rechecked.

Infectious and inflammatory conditions may crop up quickly whereas chronic diseases often take longer and develop slowly, but there’s no hard and fast rule. Because the cough you’re noticing at home, or at certain times of day, may not be seen or heard during a vet appointment, take a video with your phone. This can be immensely helpful for your vet to isolate where it’s coming from.

Here’s To Your Pup’s Health

Hopefully, your pup isn’t experiencing any of the above health problems but if so, you’ve found some useful guidelines to follow to catch some of them early, or to decide when it’s appropriate to have a doctor appointment scheduled for your pup.

In our next article, we’ll be discussing foods that are important to avoid feeding to your pooch (and to not leave out on the counter!). There will also be an opportunity to give us some feedback and let us know how you are enjoying our Dog Health Series. Stay tuned next week!