No one enjoys a visit to the dentist. The scraping, the drilling, the general discomfort and finally, the steep bill. It's not much better for pets and their owners, either. Poor oral health in dogs and cats can start a spiral of costly medical problems. Infections lead to antibiotics, and if any work must be done on the teeth, pets must be put under a general aesthetic so they are unconscious during the procedure. This can easily cost hundreds of dollars! In addition to straining the budget, pool oral health also strains your beloved pet's life span.

February is National Pet Dental Health Month, and the month-long awareness campaign aims to educate pet parents about the dangers of ignoring oral health. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, untreated oral infections can spread to vital organs such as kidneys and the heart and can be fatal. When following the guidelines experts suggest to achieve good oral health, pet owners can avoid costly visits to the veterinarian. But don't worry: when those visits are needed, there are ways to make it more affordable.

Follow these tips to save money on dental-related pet care:

Prevention

Prevention goes a long way in avoiding high dental costs. Keep teeth healthy by following these guidelines:

  • Brush those teeth! Daily brushing removes bacteria-causing plaque that builds up on the teeth. A finger toothbrush (it fits over your finger to easily reach into a dog or cat's mouth) is available on Amazon with prices starting at $1.99.  Toothpaste is also available at Amazon for $3.50. Caution: do not give your pet human toothpaste. They can't spit it out, and the ingredients aren't safe for them to ingest.
  • Use a brush alternative. If your pet isn't cooperating with a regular brushing routine, use brushless toothpaste instead. The chewable formula is available in a variety of sizes for large and small dogs and cats and contains ingredients that inhibit plaque buildup. Check out Wag.com for products by Ark Naturals (starting at $5.99) that keep teeth clean without the daily struggle of brushing.
  • Chew toys. Dogs that have regular access to chew toys such as rawhides, synthetic "bones" and edible chewing treats have healthier teeth, according to the Academy of Veterinary Dentistry. Most chew toys can last several months and are very affordable; for example, a Gumabone starts at $1.99 (for small dogs) at Doctors Foster and Smith.

Maintenance

Humans and animals have this in common when it comes to dental issues: the longer we wait to have our teeth checked, the more likely we are to have problems. Experts suggest cats and small dogs receive their first dental exams by the age of one, while large dogs should get their first exam by age two. Annual cleanings are suggested for cats and dogs. A routine cleaning can cost between $100 and $300, depending on the animal's size and whether any additional treatment is needed. Routine cleanings can cost less because they don't always require anesthesia, but when your pet does need to be unconscious for the procedure, save money by following these tips:

  • Look for specials and low-cost clinics. Some veterinary practices offer occasional specials on specific services like dental cleanings or vaccinations, and there are sometimes clinics offered for those specific services. Ask your veterinarian if any savings opportunities will be available.
  • Consider insurance. If you think unexpected medical and dental expenses will be a strain on your budget, consider getting insurance for your pet. Shop around for a plan, read the fine print to see what is and isn't covered, and get insurance as soon as possible before your pet has any health issues.
  • Combine services. If you know your pet will need anesthesia for a dental procedure, ask your veterinarian to provide this service when your pet needs to be anesthetized for another medical reason. Most pets need a procedure that requires anesthesia several times in their lives. For dental cleanings the bulk of the cost comes from the price of anesthesia, and many veterinarians are willing to clean a pet's teeth in addition to performing other procedures during one visit.
  • Use CareCredit. It works like a regular credit card and is accepted at more than 150,000 locations around the country. CareCredit offers low monthly payment options and can be a good alternative if care is needed immediately but not in the budget.