Dog breath is just part of being a dog, right?
Not so, says Dr. Brett Beckman, a veterinary dentist specialist in Sandy Springs, Ga.
"It's really not normal. That smell is indicative of early periodontal disease," Beckman said. "(A pet's breath) should smell neutral."
Brushing your pet's teeth is as important as brushing your own, he said. Just as humans need a daily dental scrub to combat tooth decay, animals need the same attention to prevent periodontal disease and bone loss. (Owners should use toothpaste designed specifically for pets, as human toothpaste can be harmful to an animal, he noted.)
"Brushing is paramount if we want to get a handle on prevention," Beckman said. "And the smaller the dog, the higher the propensity for periodontal disease because their teeth are unusually overcrowded."
If dog owner Ken Kukla has one regret when it comes to his dog's health, it's that he didn't brush Hannah's teeth from the beginning.
"The problem is that we didn't start her as a puppy," said Kukla as he walked the 9-year-old golden retriever recently. "Once they're older, it's harder to stick a toothbrush in their mouths."
To make up for his brushing blunder, Kukla gives Hannah chew toys and treats designed to combat plaque, and takes her to the veterinarian for professional cleanings, he said.
Luckily for Kukla, bigger dogs have it a bit easier when it comes to their chompers, Beckman said.
"Some dogs, big dogs especially, don't require much care throughout their lives," he said, adding that a larger dog's tooth-to-jaw ratio helps maintain a healthy mouth. "But greyhounds, in particular, are notorious for periodontal cases."
That doesn't mean owners of big dogs get off the hook when it comes to preventative care. Beckman recommends daily brushing with a soft bristle toothbrush, and just as Kukla uses, suggests products for cats and dogs such as treats, chew toys and water additives proven to reduce plaque and tartar.
(He points to the Veterinary Oral Health Council, found at www.vohc.org, which maintains a list of approved products.) Animals also should undergo a yearly dental check-up with their veterinarian.
"The best thing to do is acclimate them when they are young," Beckman said. "If you've got a (pet) that is aggressive, don't even try it. You don't want to put yourself in danger to brush your pet's teeth."
Beckman acknowledged not all four-legged animals will grow to love brushing: "Cats are very difficult, if not impossible, to brush."
Acclimating your pet to a daily brushing routine can take some time. First, establish a place in your home for the brushing.
Beckman recommends using a sink or table for small animals, and a corner of a room for dogs, as this helps prevent them from wiggling away.
Next, slowly introduce the pet-specific toothpaste to your pet over the course of a few days. Let them smell it on your finger and taste it, while praising them so they associate the toothpaste with positive behaviors.
Gradually start placing the toothbrush (or finger toothbrush designed for animals) inside their mouth, gently massaging the teeth and gums. Remember to reward them with treats or more tasty toothpaste.