No Laughing Matter

Companion Inside Sales

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Jokes about “dog breath” have probably been around since dogs were domesticated, but let’s be honest – until toothpaste was mass-produced 150 years ago, human breath was probably no better! Oral health for people and pets has come a long way since then, but unfortunately, many pet owners still don’t understand that their dog or cat’s bad breath is no laughing matter. There are plenty of studies and statistics that show why more emphasis on dental care is so important.

Market research from Virbac found that 74 percent of owners complain about their dog’s bad breath. It’s no coincidence that at least 75 percent of dogs and cats have some form of periodontal disease by age 3, making it the No. 1 health problem and diagnosed disease in small animal patients.

Periodontal disease occurs when food particles and oral bacteria build up along the gum line and transform into plaque. Plaque can attach to clean teeth within 24 hours. If the plaque isn’t removed, minerals in the saliva bind with it and start to form tartar (or calculus) after just three days. Gingivitis can begin after only two weeks. Along with causing infections, abscesses and tooth decay or loss, if the bacteria from untreated periodontal disease get under the gums and into the bloodstream, they can cause serious conditions ranging from cardiac, kidney and gastrointestinal disease to respiratory issues, arthritis and diabetes.

An everyday client conversation
The industry may have designated February as National Pet Dental Health Month, but veterinary staff should be discussing the importance of dental health during every client visit. Small breed dogs are especially prone to oral disease, due in part to genetics and because owners tend to give them people food or soft diets. The conformation of the mouths of brachycephalic breeds like pugs and shih tzus makes them particularly vulnerable to dental problems. I’ve seen this difference in my own dogs, who both eat the same diet, chews and treats. My 14-year-old, 40-pound mixed breed has always had great teeth with minimal effort on my part, while keeping my long-haired dachshund’s teeth healthy has required daily brushing and gel treatments from the start.

Client compliance is everything when it comes to dental care, and great communication and education make all the difference increasing that compliance. Daily brushing has always been considered the “gold standard,” but statistics show that 98 percent of pet owners don’t brush their animal’s teeth! Clients may avoid brushing because they assume their pets won’t cooperate, that it takes too much time, or because they don’t understand the importance of oral care. Veterinary staff who take the time to demonstrate how easy it is to train a pet to enjoy – or at least tolerate – brushing, stress that one or two minutes a day is all it takes. Also, showing the consequences of dental disease can help their customers see the light. With the average price of veterinary dentals ranging from $250 to $600 and up, depending on the pet’s oral health, just two minutes a day of brushing with pet-formulated toothpaste is a real bargain when it comes to prevention versus treatment.

Veterinary staff should emphasize making brushing a fun, enjoyable “treat” for a pet. With so many flavors of toothpaste (beef, poultry, seafood, peanut butter and more) dogs especially like the taste. The vet or tech can show the steps to take to gradually work up to brushing, starting with letting the dog lick a dab of tasty toothpaste as a treat in the exam room, to putting a dab on a finger brush or toothbrush and letting them lick it off, to gently brushing the teeth for just a few seconds at a time until the owner can gradually work up to a minute or two. The staff should stress that lots of praise, rewards and patience are the key. Some pets may work through the steps quickly, while it may take a few weeks for others. A follow-up to check progress and answer questions is well worth the time.

For those pet owners who will never agree to brush their pet’s teeth, tooth and gum wipes may be a good option. They provide a mechanical action similar to brushing, have good taste acceptance, and they’re hygienic, quick and less messy than brushing. They’re a great alternative for senior dogs who may not tolerate brushing and could have issues with anesthesia during a dental cleaning.

Getting good results
There are a plethora of products for “passive” home dental care that yield good results and provide your clinics with a number of options to increase compliance. These include dental diets, chews, oral gels or sprays, and water additives. Be ready to discuss and recommend the products you carry that they can offer as part of a complete dental health program.

Be sure to note those items that are VOHC-Certified. Any products with the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal have been through double-blind studies and shown a 15 to 25 percent reduction in plaque, tartar or both. The complete list is available at You can partner with your clients further by helping them source samples and manufacturer educational materials and by discussing home delivery options to increase compliance and revenue.

Dog chews are a product category where the expert advice of a veterinarian can help owners choose the best option for their pet. Consumers are rightly concerned about manufacturing processes – particularly for products made overseas – and the information and misinformation on rawhide, antlers, natural bones, manufactured chews and all the various animal parts from ears to feet sold as dog chews. You can help your clients select healthy, safe and effective dental chews to offer their customers.

While nothing beats hands-on demonstrations, staff recommendations and one-on-one communication during a patient visit, veterinarians can further their message of the importance of dental health with client handouts and by posting videos, links and photos on social media.

Bad breath is no joke for pet owners. Your knowledge and recommendations of dental health products will help your clients discuss this smelly subject with their customers and have everyone smiling.