Updated November 29, 2020
Many dog owners come to us thinking that if their dog chews biscuits it will protect their teeth. Sadly this is not always true. Here we will tell you which biscuits can help dental care, and what else can prevent gum disease and tooth decay in your dog.
Before we talk about what works, how do we know what causes good and bad mouths? Simply because every time we see your dog we can’t resist looking. Whenever possible, we also ask about your dog’s diet and what else you do for dental care. After many years, we have built up a picture of what works and what doesn’t.
For dogs on regular dog foods, we see no difference between dogs on soft food versus dogs on hard biscuits. Both accumulate plaque and tartar and both get gingivitis at the same rate. This shouldn’t be too surprising; the causes of bad teeth and gums are the same in dogs and people, and we would never expect similar foods to help our teeth.
The secrets of a good dental health program for dogs
Here are my opinions after 20 years of observation. Please, please don’t try these before seeing a vet if your pet may have sore teeth.
How often do we (myself included) look properly in our dogs’ mouths? Have a look at how we are doing it in the picture above, then have a look at the model. Hard as it is, you should be able to gently expose all the teeth by stretching the lips back.
Only by looking can we see the problem early enough. How about having a thorough inspection every three months when worming is due?
Physical tooth cleaning works the best
A layer of plaque forms on tooth surfaces from a combination of food particles and bacteria. If it’s left there it causes gingivitis and eventually the periodontal ligament that holds the tooth in place starts to be destroyed.
Physical methods to remove plaque include special dog foods, raw bones and tooth brushing. More on these later. All of them rely on physically rubbing the tooth and gum surface until it’s free of plaque.
Avoid strategies that seem too easy
I see many in-water additives or drops claiming to keep teeth clean, and new products are released frequently. I even try some of these, and I will be trialling a promising new one soon. However, up to now, I have seen no dog on these products receive any visible benefit.
When you understand periodontal disease, it’s not easy to see how simple products like these could work without being too harsh to the mouth. I’m not saying they don’t work, just that I can’t see it.
The danger of using these products is that it creates a false sense of security while the problem silently progresses.
Regularity is the key
Plaque doesn’t muck around. if you leave it there for a few days, it starts to mineralise from salts in the saliva into a substance called tartar or calculus (from the latin for ‘stone’). That’s the brown stuff you can see in the picture at the beginning and in any mouth where nothing is being done to prevent it.
Removing it usually requires veterinary help. Therefore, start your dental care plan early and keep it regular. Most strategies need to be done daily.
If a cleaning strategy isn’t working, and you can either smell your dog’s breath, or see staining on the teeth (or worse, red gums), come and see us straight away. There may not be a second chance.
Gum recession and periodontal ligament loss are irreversible. Recessed gums are harder to clean, gum pockets harbour infection and so the disease tends to accelerate as the gums recede. Remember that dogs with tooth pain don’t complain.
Read here what we can do for bad teeth. Our aim is to get involved before any gum recession occurs. Sometimes we can make suggestions for you to do at home and other times we will recommend an ultrasonic scale and polish. Those who’ve been to the dentist recently will understand why no normal dog would tolerate this process without an anaesthetic.
Ways To Keep Dogs’ Teeth Clean
So here are what we think work.
Those who visit us will already know that we support the feeding raw bones to dogs. It has been shown to be the only in-home treatment that can remove tartar accumulations. It is also appears to reduce the progression of periodontal disease, although this has never been studied. It just happens to be a lot of fun too.
The problem is that feeding raw bones requires care, and understanding of the potential dangers. For that reason, we only advise on raw bone feeding once we have assessed your pet and discussed your dog’s behaviour around food and other dogs. Some mouths also require treatment of painful or diseased areas before hard chewing can commence.
Bones won’t always clean all the teeth. The common appearance of a bone chewing mouth is of excellent premolar and molar health but tartar accumulation on the upper canine teeth. For these patients we recommended a quick dental procedure to remove the tartar followed by continuing raw bones and just brushing the upper canines each day; quick and easy in most dogs.
It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds to brush a dog’s teeth. The plaque and tartar mostly only accumulate on the outside, so we don’t ask you to brush the inside of the teeth. If you do it every day, your dog should settle into the routine after some initial resistance.
You mainly need to focus on the gum line, but you do need to brush right to the hind-most molars. As they are usually out of sight it’s mostly done by feel.
It’s important to use dog-specific toothpastes (which we have) but it doesn’t matter what brush you use as long as it can reach all the areas. These dog toothbrushes are quite cheap, have well-shaped heads, and an angled stem so you don’t knock the nose when you brush the back teeth.
We observe that Pedigree Dentastix work well for most dogs. Greenies also work well, especially for small dogs. The Supercoat curly dog chews may also work, but we haven’t seen enough dogs using them yet to be sure.
All these need to be fed every day.
There are some effective dental diets, but not many, and they should make it clear on the label. We sell and recommend Royal Canin Dental Support, Hills Vetessentials and especially Hills t/d diets. All of these usually help but it’s fair to say that on their own they won’t stop your dog needing dentistry, just make it happen less often.
If you use dental diets, you can see why they work. Unlike ‘normal’ dog biscuits, which just break when the crown of the tooth comes in contact, these biscuits have a softer texture. When chewed, the tooth penetrates the biscuit and the tooth and gum is lightly rubbed in the process.
I wish there were more options available. The Kong Dental Stick is probably the best of the chew toys, especially if smeared with something tasty.
If you come across any other products, read the fine print. A good thing to remember is that anything sold in the USA or Europe has to have shown evidence in support of any therapeutic claim. Therefore, products from or sold into these areas have already jumped a major hurdle and their claims are likely to be reasonably accurate.
Many mouth rinse and in-water teeth cleaning treatments are sold. Most of these have poor evidence and we are uneasy about the safety of some. When necessary, we use and recommend Maxi-Guard.
We care about your dog’s teeth because their health and wellbeing depends on having a mouth free of infection. If you have another strategy that has helped your dog, let us know by adding your comment below! If you need help, please contact us.
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!