The importance of dental health for your Lab

by Hailey Hudson

February is National Pet Dental Health Month, a holiday established by the American Veterinary Medical Association. It’s the perfect time to make sure you’re taking care of your Labrador’s oral health to help prevent painful and expensive dental health issues. Here’s what you need to know about at-home canine dental care and how you can keep your Lab’s teeth healthy and clean.

 “Just like with people, proper dental care is essential for the overall good health of pets,” said Steve Larson, DVM, of West Loop Veterinary Care in Chicago. “This is true for all pets, including our beloved Labrador retrievers.”

For dogs who don’t receive proper dental care, plaque buildup can cause painful, expensive, and potentially dangerous problems. As plaque accumulates on your dog’s teeth, it will eventually harden into tartar, which can build up under the gumline. This can cause gingivitis, a condition where the gums become inflamed. And if plaque bacteria continue to damage the tissue in your dog’s mouth, his teeth can become damaged.

“Bacterial infections from the dog’s teeth can also lead to heart, kidney, and lung problems. The lack of proper dental care can cause serious and costly problems for pets,” Dr. Larson said. But what sort of dental care does your Labrador need?

“For dogs, proper dental care includes regular brushing of the dog’s teeth; annual examination by your veterinarian; and, as needed, a professional cleaning while your dog is under anesthesia.”

At-Home Dental Care

You can take simple steps to care for your Labrador’s oral health at home. Regular brushing is important; if you can, brush your dog’s teeth every day so plaque doesn’t build up over time. But before you begin, Dr. Larson says, it’s essential to make sure you have the correct equipment.

“It is vital to use only toothpaste and tooth-cleaning products approved for pets. Many human toothpastes contain xylitol, which is toxic to dogs,” he explains. Any canine toothpaste you purchase should have the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) Seal of Acceptance. The VOHC is an establishment of the American Veterinary Dental College, and its seal indicates that a product is both safe and effective for dogs (and cats).

Once you have a safe canine toothpaste in hand, you’re ready to brush your dog’s teeth. Dr. Larson, who owns Labs himself, says that your Lab’s easygoing temperament will probably make your job easy. “As a long-time owner of Labrador retrievers, I know their biddable personality often makes them compliant partners in this process.”

It’s always best, however, to start slowly as you get your dog used to a new ritual. Many dogs are uncomfortable having their mouth touched. So, before you introduce the toothpaste, simply let your Lab get accustomed to you handling his mouth.

“First, let them get used to you touching their muzzle, lifting their lips, and gently putting your finger along their teeth. Perhaps give them a treat after examining their mouth,” Dr. Larson says. “Positive reinforcement works very well with our food-motivated Labrador friends.”

Don’t rush through the process; do this for several days with no toothbrush in sight, until your Lab is completely comfortable with you touching his mouth.

Next, it’s time to introduce toothpaste. Put some on your finger and let your dog lick it off; then try putting a small bit of toothpaste on your dog’s front tooth. After that, you can progress to rubbing the toothpaste on your dog’s teeth. If your Lab balks at one toothpaste, try another flavor — there are plenty of choices on the market. After a couple of days, you can bring out the toothbrush.

“Start by putting a small amount of toothpaste on [the toothbrush]. Let your dog smell the toothbrush and lick the toothpaste off the toothbrush,” Dr. Larson says. “Then slowly brush a couple of the front teeth.”

Day by day, you can brush a little bit more. Soon, your dog will be used to this new sensation, and you can brush his entire mouth. Lift your dog’s cheek to brush his teeth, using a circular motion along his gumline.

In addition to daily brushing, it’s important to incorporate preventative care for your dog’s dental health. “One thing I have noticed over the course of my veterinary career is that it’s not unusual for a Lab to crack or break a tooth when aggressively chewing on hard objects,” Dr. Larson said. He suggests giving your Lab semi-soft materials, such as rubber toys, so they don’t break a tooth while playing.

“I recommend to my Lab clients that they avoid items like bones, deer antlers, and hard plastic type products. A good rule of thumb is that if you can indent the product with your fingernail, it’s a good option for an aggressive chewer. If you can’t, I would avoid it.”

Regular Veterinary Checkups

If your dog has bad breath and visible signs of tartar on his teeth – a brown crust around the gumline – it’s probably time to call in the professionals rather than doing it yourself at home. Oral exams and x-rays are important to make sure your dog doesn’t have any underlying issues.

“In terms of procedures, the appropriate way to clean a dog’s teeth is while he is under anesthesia,” Dr. Larson said. “This is the only way your dog’s medical team can get underneath the gumline and clear out any tartar that has accumulated and is endangering your dog’s health. This also gives them an opportunity to take any necessary dental x-rays to look for underlying disease.”

Visiting the Store

“There are lots of great products on the market these days with a variety of tools to help keep your dog’s teeth clean, including special foods, chews, wipes, liquids, toothpastes, and toothbrushes,” said Dr. Larson. “Today, virtually any dental care available to humans is now available to dogs.”

If you’re overwhelmed by the many product choices out there, where should you start? Run a search online for a list of dental products that are approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council. This list compiled by the VOHC is a comprehensive guide to the best canine dental products out there. And if you still aren’t sure where to begin, talk to your Labrador’s veterinarian.

“Your veterinarian is your best resource for dental care for your dog,” said Dr. Larson. They can guide in the best choices for products, procedures, and providers.”


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