If you ask 10 working or performance dog handlers about the best way to maintain a dog's dental health, chances are you'll hear 10 different answers. Truth is, there's lots of ways to keep a dog's teeth and gums healthy, and some are better than others.
Every dog is different. Some dogs build plaque (that soft, sticky film on the teeth that is composed of bacteria) quicker than others and this can be affected by age, genetics, diet, and many other factors. When plaque accumulates, it hardens and becomes tartar or calculus (firmly attached, mineralized plaque that develops at or below the gumline).
Do dog's get cavities? Dogs can get what is similar to cavities in people (called caries in dogs), but they are considered pretty uncommon. Caries are caused by a decay in the enamel of the tooth presumably by the presence of sugars in the diet, but the real danger to dogs is from periodontal disease (explained below).
If dog's don't really get cavities, why is plaque and tartar bad? Well, as we just learned above, plaque and tartar are made up of bacteria. Now, the tartar that you see on the surface of the tooth (above the gumline) isn't necessarily harmful (just unsightly). It's the accumulation below the gumline (the part you cannot see) that is the real problem. When this bacteria has time to set up shop below the gumline, a series of events begin that lead to damage of the delicate tissues that hold the tooth in place. This begins as gingivitis (inflammation or redness of the gums), painful periodontal disease (the loss of bone and soft tissues around the teeth), and eventually tooth loss.
So, now we know why plaque and tartar are bad, what can we do about it? The answer is, lots of things! What works for some, might not work for others. The important thing is to find what works best for you and your dog(s).
Here's a quick overview of some of the options:
Daily Brushing (The Gold Standard)
Humans have been brushing their teeth to prevent periodontal disease for thousands of years, and brushing is considered the gold standard for the prevention of plaque accumulation. Since plaque (soft and easily removed) eventually becomes tartar (mineralized and more difficult to remove), it makes the most sense to remove the plaque BEFORE it becomes tartar. Plaque often hardens into tartar within 48 hours of accumulation and is easily removed by mechanical action by brushing the teeth, so the best recommendation is to brush the teeth DAILY using a toothpaste formulated for dogs (the fluoride in human toothpaste is not good for dogs when swallowed, and we haven't figured out how to train a dog to rinse and spit).
Chews are generally considered less effective than brushing, but still a great way to promote dental health and slow the accumulation of tartar. The mechanical action of chewing can help break up tartar and remove plaque. In addition, many commercially available "dental" diets and chews contain substances that kill bacteria and/or prevent plaque from sticking to the teeth.
There are some real concerns about chews, and it is important to consider all of the risks when choosing an appropriate chew for your dog:
1. Choking and intestinal obstruction- Some dogs will attempt to swallow large pieces of a chew which can become lodged in the back of the throat and block the airway, or become lodged in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Either can be life threatening. Always supervise your dog when giving them a chew.
2: Intestinal perforation- Some items commonly given to dogs can splinter when chewed and puncture the soft tissues of the GI tract, causing a life threatening illness. Animal bones (raw and cooked) are often implicated.
3. Worn teeth- Abrasive items can wear down the enamel, exposing the more sensitive inner structures of the teeth. This can lead to chronic inflammation, discomfort, and even tooth root abscess. Tennis balls, plush toys, and many fabric toys can cause this.
4. Broken teeth- Chews that are too hard are known to cause tooth crown fracture. Crown fractures usually need to be treated by a veterinarian to prevent chronic pain, inflammation, and eventual tooth root abscess. Chew items that commonly cause tooth fracture are hard nylon "bones", antlers, and bull horns. A general rule often used is: if you hit yourself in the shin with it and it hurts....it probably isn't a good option for your dog to chew.
There are many commercially available oral rinse products available for dogs. These work similarly to human "mouthwash". The compounds in these products are antiseptic (prevent the growth of bacteria), and/or bind to the teeth to prevent plaque accumulation. Certainly not as good as brushing or chews, but can be helpful when combined with other strategies.
What's the Best Approach For MY Dog?
The best approach for you, is whichever one that you can fit into your dogs routine regularly. Rinses are good, chews are better, and brushing is the best but none are effective if your dog wont tolerate them, or you can't perform them regularly. Try them all, and choose the right one for your routine. There are many products out there that make claims of success, and there is little to no regulation on labeling for dental health products for animals. The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) is an independent organization that recognizes products that meet pre-set standards of plaque and calculus (tartar) retardation in dogs and cats. A list of products with the VOHC seal of approval can be found by clicking HERE.
We'd love to hear how you maintain your dog's dental health! Comment below!