Dental problems can pose a serious threat to a dog’s health if left untreated. Although dogs don’t typically seem to suffer with dental decay or cavities, any plaque that’s allowed to build up excessively on the teeth, can turn into hardened tartar, which results in bad breath, and can cause bacteria to build up at the border with the gums. These bacteria in turn release toxins into the oral tissue, which can lead to periodontal disease – a problem of the gums.
The bacteria cause the gum tissue and tooth to separate from one another which causes ‘pockets’ to develop, where yet more bacteria can congregate. The teeth can actually become loosened as the toxins move into the deeper layers of the gum tissues, and painful abscesses can form. Bacterial toxins can also enter the bloodstream, and this poses a risk to the kidneys, lungs, liver and heart – and ultimately the entire immune system.
The rate at which periodontal disease progresses seems to be affected by the number and type of bacteria in the mouth. Dogs who pant excessively or breathe with an open mouth, develop more persistent plaque because their mouth tends to be drier. Older dogs are also more commonly affected. The composition of the dog’s saliva seems to play a role in his propensity to suffer dental problems as well – the more acidic the dog’s slobber, the more quickly tartar is likely to develop, as that slobber combines with the bacteria that are naturally present in the mouth.
Some breeds (especially smaller dogs) seem to be more prone to dental problems than big dogs. This may be a genetic issue, or perhaps a result of the fact that as a general rule, small dogs are more finicky in nature, which can lead their owners to try and entice them with ’sticky’ canned foods and diets that contain higher amounts of sugar. In some cases, owners of tiny breeds may also be nervous about feeding their dogs with whole chicken necks & wings (the types of bones that require true chewing and gnawing, and help to lessen plaque buildup in bigger bone-crunching breeds) for fear of choking. Small dogs are also more prone to their teeth being crowded together (which in turn can make brushing or cleaning with bones and cartilage, even more difficult).
Unfortunately, many owners take their dogs’ dental health for granted and assume that no proactive care is necessary – only to discover that years down the road, a serious dental health concern has arisen, and costly veterinary bills to undo the damage (sometimes including uncomfortable extractions) are on the horizon.
With lots of pet food manufactures promoting their dry, crunchy kibble products as capable of cleaning the teeth, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the dogs’ teeth can be all but ignored if she’s eating pelleted food. But the fact is that in the majority of cases, dogs and cats don’t actually even crunch up their kibble with their teeth. Have you ever seen your dog vomit or regurgitate her kibble? Almost without exception, that kibble returns to the world in the exact same form as it was consumed – round pellets. There’s no way the pellets could have cleaned the teeth because they were never even chewed, and simply got swallowed whole!
Secondly, most kibbles are so laden with processed simple carbohydrates, that any pellets which are actually chewed, run the risk of impacting starches and sugars into the gum-line, thus increasing the likelihood of periodontal disease over the long term. In contrast, most home prepared diets do not seem to contribute to the same levels of tartar buildup as processed dry foods and a fresh, minimally processed pet food diet causes almost no tartar buildup in most cases.
Some owners make dental health a top priority and follow a diligent routine of brushing with specialized pet toothpaste on a daily basis. There’s also a growing sub-industry of pet dental products, ranging from specialized toys and chews, to powders and liquid products that are added to the food or water, and claim to promote dental health.
A canine toothbrush or finger-toothbrush can be a good investment for owners of dogs who are especially prone to plaque and tartar buildup, and regular at-home cleaning can help delay or completely avoid the need for professional dental cleanings. You can get your dog used to a toothbrush by applying a meat-flavored toothpaste to it and just allowing him to lick it off. Once he is comfortable with this, you can begin gently brushing the teeth. Most canine tartar buildup actually occurs on the sides adjacent to the cheeks and not inside, by the tongue, which makes cleaning a little easier! Ultimately, you can work up to cleaning the teeth two or three times a week if needed.
The frequency rate of the cleaning schedule often ends up correlating directly with the dog’s willingness to have his teeth cleaned with a toothbrush – those who love the process tend to make it a much more rewarding experience for the owner, and this results in more frequent cleaning compared with the dog who hates it, fights with the brush and causes an exhausting struggle which may only be braved once or twice a year!
If tartar buildup is very severe, a professional cleaning may be necessary to give you a ‘clean slate’ to work with but as with most things, if you can get into good habits early on, or incorporate fresh foods and bones when appropriate, the management and maintenance of dental health is much easier.
When a dental cleaning does become a necessity, there’s some debate about whether this should be done under anesthetic, or ‘anesthesia-free’. Many conventional vets claim that the teeth can only be very thoroughly examined and cleaned on all facets when the dog is completely anesthetized and unable to protest. However, anesthesia-free cleaning is becoming immensely popular and can result in gleaming pearly-whites for many dogs – particularly if done on a maintenance schedule every year or two, to prevent the development of less severe dental problems.
One of the best tools for cleaning the teeth enjoyably and without a fuss, is a raw beef marrow bone or ‘soup’ bone. Most dogs adore having a fresh raw bone to chew on; it will provide hours of gnawing enjoyment and the abrasive action of the bone against the teeth and pulling off any scraps of meat, can reduce plaque buildup, scrape off any developing tartar and even clean between the teeth as sinew is pulled off. Results aren’t usually seen overnight but offering a good bone to chew on a couple or three times a week will almost always help with dental health. There are some concerns about a risk of tooth fracture in more ‘aggressive chewers’ when gnawing on raw bones so it is wise to discuss this with your veterinarian and monitor your dog closely to begin with, to establish how voraciously he chews.
Dogs who eat a minimally processed, ‘prey model’ or other raw or homemade diet tend to suffer less with dental problems over all than their counterparts who eat processed food. Ultimately, the way you approach dental health will depend on what you are comfortable with as an owner and the time you are willing to spend.
The key thing to remember is (as with most things) prevention is far better than cure. So whether it’s a specialty custom-made dental product or good old-fashioned meat and bones, reducing the risk of plaque buildup is much less unpleasant for your dog and your wallet, compared with a visit to the vet for major dental work and the risk of having to have teeth pulled.