Welcome to another installment of “Debarking Pet Myths,” our monthly series that addresses common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs, cats and their nutrition.
Despite the fact that nearly 70 percent of dog owners and 73 percent of cat owners have never brushed their pets’ teeth, it is generally recommended that you brush your dog or cat’s teeth every day. Which makes sense: you brush your teeth after every meal. Why shouldn’t your pet’s teeth receive the same care?
Well, not the exact same care. Brushing your cat or dog’s teeth isn’t as simple as grabbing the toothpaste and a spare brush from your bathroom vanity and heading for Cocoa’s kisser. Ideally, you would use a pet-specific toothbrush, although a soft-bristled children’s toothbrush will also work. You can also use your finger wrapped in some cotton fabric, if need be.
But you should never, ever use human toothpaste on your pet’s teeth.
The most obvious reason that human toothpaste is bad for your cat or dog is that human toothpaste is made to be spit out. Have you ever seen your pet spit something out of their mouth? Any pet can face an upset stomach (at the very least) when swallowing something not made specifically for their system, and toothpaste is definitely in this category.
For humans, swallowing the typical dose (a dab about the size of a fingerprint) of toothpaste generally isn’t a big deal. But human toothpaste can contain more than one ingredient that, in large enough quantities, can cause serious health problems in dogs and cats.
Xylitol: Arguably tasty, but inarguably bad for your pet
Xylitol, the chemical that gives your toothpaste its sweet flavor (or its mediciny aftertaste, depending on your palate), is extremely toxic to pets and can be life threatening if your pet consumes enough of it. According to VCA Hospitals, 50 milligrams (mg) of xylitol per pound of body weight can cause hypoglycemia in a pet, and more than that can even cause liver failure. For reference, there are 5,000 mg in a typical teaspoon. Since some human toothpastes can be 25 percent xylitol, you can see how it wouldn’t take much to put your pet in danger.
Signs of xylitol poisoning include vomiting, weakness, lethargy, tremors or seizures. If you suspect that your dog or cat has ingested xylitol or toothpaste with xylitol, call your veterinarian or the Pet Poison Helpline at (855) 764-7661.
Fluoride is also to be avoided
Meanwhile, too much fluoride can cause diarrhea or vomiting in your pet, and way too much can be deadly. According to Merck, a fatal dosage of sodium fluoride is 5–10 mg/kg (2.5–5 mg/pound) and toxic manifestations may be evident after consumption of 1 mg/kg (.5 mg/pound). So for a 30-pound dog, 15 mg of fluoride could cause gastrointestinal distress. That means that it would only take the equivalent of four or five normal human-sized dollops of toothpaste to make your pet sick if he or she weighed 30 pounds. Smaller pets might get sick over much less.
Keep in mind that minor levels of fluoride can be ingested without issue. After all, many municipal water supplies are infused with fluoride, and any product made with that water will likely have trace amounts of it. You only have to worry about sudden concentrated amounts, but again, if you suspect your pet has gotten into your fluoride toothpaste, call your veterinarian or the Pet Poison Helpline.
Not brushing at all can be even worse
Of course, not brushing your pet’s teeth at all introduces all kinds of other issues that can affect the long-term health of your pet. Just be sure to choose a recommended pet-friendly toothpaste and, if possible, a pet-friendly toothbrush. The Veterinary Oral Health Council lists a number of VOHC-approved products.
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