Oral Care Made Easy
By Sara Hodon
Retailers can be instrumental in ensuring the health of their customers’ pets by showing shoppers how good oral hygiene can be accomplished in three simple steps.

Good oral health is important to a pet’s overall wellness. Unfortunately, for many consumers, it often falls well below bone, joint and skin care on their priority list. However, studies have shown that between 75 and 80 percent of dogs have some sort of periodontal diseases by the time they turn two years old, leading to increased veterinary visits and, in many cases, costly treatments. If a pet’s teeth and gums are neglected, plaque and tartar can accumulate, which can cause more serious conditions that can affect the animal’s heart, liver or lungs.

“A pet’s oral health is very important, but, just like people, it’s often neglected because it’s not easy,” says Dr. Phil Brown, vice president of quality assurance at Nutri-Vet, which manufactures a wide range of products to promote pet health and wellness, including oral care. Just ask a pet owner with an energetic breed like a Labrador retriever, which may need some strong-arming while having its teeth brushed. The owner may make an initial effort to keep up the oral-care routine but may find it too challenging to maintain. Abandoning the routine can lead to mouth trouble. Dogs with teeth and gum issues may have chronic bad breath, or loss of interest in eating or chewing on their toys. Cats may drool excessively or neglect their grooming habits.

Older pets are particularly prone to oral problems, such as gingivitis, inflamed gums or loose or broken teeth. “Older pets with older owners—particularly senior citizens—often have these problems,” says Bud Groth, president of Petzlife, which manufactures a popular line of oral care products. “One of the things that’s changed so dramatically in the past 10 or 15 years is a pet’s diet. Pets’ diets have gotten so horrendously bad, it’s rotting their teeth out. The owners’ children or grandchildren have all moved out, so their pets become their children and they overfeed them.”

Luckily, good oral health can easily be accomplished using a combination of brushing, water additives and dental-specific chew toys.

Early & Often
The key to maintaining good oral health over a pet’s lifetime is to start early and use various methods. “Unfortunately, ‘quick fixes’ are popular now,” says Steven Shweky, president of Fetch!, which recently introduced an Arm & Hammer-branded oral-care line. “It’s good maintenance, but long-term they’re not going to take care of the problem. Chews, sprays and mints are good as ‘bridge’ products but nothing replaces mechanical brushing.”

Manufacturers suggest starting to brush a puppy’s teeth when they are only a few weeks old. “Put some toothpaste on your finger and get them familiar with having something in their mouth, because it’s harder when they’re adult,” suggests David Pang of Gumbone, a dental treat manufacturer. “Start when the puppy is between eight and 10 weeks—make a game out of it. If you can do it every day or every other day, that’s best, but once a week is also good, and use dental treats between brushings.”

As the pet ages, an owner may have to adjust their routine—perhaps use a softer toothbrush or brush less often if the pet’s gums show some redness or sensitivity—but the core habits should remain the same if the pet is in good health.

But a consumer shouldn’t reach for that tube of toothpaste on the bathroom sink to use it on a dog. “A pet owner should use dog toothpaste,” Brown explains. “They have ones that are liver-flavored and those that are more appealing to a dog—they do not like the minty flavors that are in human toothpaste.” 

Oral Care Options
Besides brushes and toothpaste, a variety of chews, additives and foams are also popular oral care items. Each type of product provides a distinct benefit as part of a pet’s overall oral-care routine, provided they effectively deliver the results they promise. With this in mind, retailers should carefully evaluate the effectiveness of each oral care item they consider bringing into the store.

For example, when it comes to dental chews, Pang says that retailers should pay attention to the rigidity of a product. “You have super-hard products and super-pliable products,” he says. “If a product is super hard, the dog will break it and then chew the pieces. One that’s softer tends to be more pliable and will not shatter and clean the teeth a little better. We preferred to offer a pliable product that requires the dog to chew a little more, and it will actually clean their teeth.”

Even with the nuances between the types of products on the market today, Groth says that there are a few indicators of effectiveness that span the entire oral care category. “To test a product’s effectiveness, the number-one thing it should do is take away bad breath within its first few applications,” he says. “Within five to seven days, the owner should notice the swelling [in the pet’s gums] going down. It should also take away the plaque or tartar. If it’s working, the owner should see some of that coming off, particularly the tartar, which is softer and easier to remove. And it should be easy to use, because an owner may not want to take the time to brush, or their pet won’t let them do it.”

Besides effectiveness, palatability is also important—the more appealing it is, the more receptive the pet will be. “A consumer should choose the product based on what their dog likes,” says Pang. “Do they like chicken or lamb? There are many good products on the market—the trick is, will the dog eat it? Is it digestible? If the dog doesn’t eat it, doesn’t matter how well the product works.”

Brian Collier, creative marketing and public relations coordinator for Tropiclean, which manufactures the Fresh Breath Made Easy oral care line, also advises that retailers explain to consumers that the products only work if a pet owner actually uses them. “Many times, they purchase an item, use it once, and then dispose of it in the closet for the rest of its life. Look for products that will promote your pet’s overall wellness through natural ingredients. Finally, we always recommend that you consult your vet to choose products that will be safe and effective for your pet.”

Building a Section
Manufacturers suggest that retailers use merchandising to single out their oral care products to reinforce their important role in pet health. “If retailers put together a section of their store for dental health, that makes it more impactful,” says Brown. “A retailer could put out pictures of dogs with really bad teeth as if to say, ‘you don’t want your dog to get to this stage.’ Threaten, but don’t frighten owners—it all comes down to education. Owners need to know there are lots of things you can do to make your pet live longer.”

Retailers may also go a step further by showing consumers how to use oral care products, particularly brushing. “Offer in-store demos, hold training for pet owners, or offer brushing services after the pet is groomed,” Shweky recommends. “Consumer education is the biggest hurdle we have to get over.”

Manufacturers are still developing ways to further promote this growing market effectively, but most agree that it starts with retailers understanding its importance. “One of the most important elements of this discussion is for retailers to understand that only 10 percent of pet owners provide consistent oral care for their pets,” says Collier. “That suggests that 90 percent of pet owners are either unaware of their pets’ needs or desire a better solution. Start the conversation with your customers about how they are caring for their pets’ dental needs and provide them with the best solution.”