by Dr. Dog Mom, DVM, guest blogger
I love my dogs! They are sweet, funny, smart, loving, and fun! I could go on and on! I bet you love yours too or you wouldn’t be reading this. Their biggest fault is they don’t live long enough. I try to give my dogs the best care available so they will lead long and healthy lives. Don’t you?
One very important, but often neglected, key to keeping our dogs healthy and maximizing the chance they will have a long life is home dental care.
Unhealthy mouths are part of a terrible disease cycle, which starts with with bacteria, leads to tartar (an ugly brown/tan substance) building up on the dog’s teeth, and, if left unchecked, will be followed by gingivitis (inflamed gums), bad breath, and even more serious hidden problems under the gum-line, in the jaw and in the dog’s body.
What causes tartar?
Dogs’ mouths are a complex environment of bacteria and immune cells. There are millions of bacteria living in our dogs’ mouths. Unfortunately, some of the bacteria in their mouths are what we call pathogenic or disease-causing bacteria. These bacteria feed on carbohydrates and others food material in the dogs’ mouth and start forming a biofilm across the exposed surfaces of the teeth and below the gum line. Initially, this is invisible but sticky. Gradually, the bacterial matrix will combine with minerals and harden into tartar, which you can see.
Not only is tartar unsightly, but the dog will also suffer from bad breath. This can affect the enjoyment of our relationship with our dogs. But, even worse, the bacteria produce toxins and will erode the attachments of the teeth and may eventually erode the jaw bone. Even more disturbing, the bacteria may enter the bloodstream and affect the heart and/or kidneys.
What influences dental disease?
The amount of dental disease a dog suffers from depends on several components: genetics, the size of the mouth, diet, the bacterial population in the mouth and mechanical removal of the sticky bacterial film.
How can we, the pet parent, help our dogs and minimize this problem? Let’s look at each of the above listed risk factors and how we might influence our dog’s dental health in each case.
1. Genetics and jaw size
Before you pick a dog, you could select a breed that is less prone to dental disease. Toy breeds are especially prone to dental disease. This is not only due to having a small mouth and crowded teeth, but also due to genetics. Yes, genetics influence the size of the jaw, but beyond that, genetics affect how the dog’s body responds to the attack of the oral bacteria. The majority of the damage from dental bacterial disease is actually a result of the inflammatory response the dog’s own body develops in response to the bacteria. Personally, I am stuck with these risk factors as I am in love with a toy breed! Also, once a dog is part of our family, we can’t do anything about the genetic or jaw size part. Our dog is our dog! So, this gives me a lot of incentive to concentrate on the risk factors I can influence, which we will discuss next.
A diet high in carbohydrates and starches will only encourage the growth of the destructive bacteria in the dogs’ mouths and give them “fuel” for developing tartar. For this (and many other reasons) please feed your dogs a natural meat based diet and treat them with only with natural healthy snacks. (I am always amazed at how many pet parents sped a lot of money on their dog’s food but then give them treats that are full of grains and/or made in China or are full of sugar!)
3. The bacterial population
The bacteria causing dental disease are very hard to kill, especially once they form plaque. Plaque is actually a protective biofilms the bacteria form. Once the biofilm forms, the bacteria are over a thousand times harder to kill with antibiotics. Therefore, antibiotics are not useful in treating dental disease. At one point, there was a vaccine developed against some of the destructive strains of oral bacteria but the data was very mixed and the vaccine turned out to be potentially harmful, so the conditional license was withdrawn and it was removed from veterinary tool boxes.
Another concept would be to overwhelm the “bad bacteria” with “good bacteria” in the from of probiotics. This idea has been explored in both human and veterinary dentistry. The studies I have looked at show mixed results. Some lactobacillus species, especially Lactobacillus brevis, may be helpful here. The good news is Answers Raw Fermented Goat’s Milk and Kefir contain Lactobacillus brevis!!!
Even with mixed results about the helpfulness of probiotics for dental health, since probiotics are important for a healthy gut immune system, I advocate using Answers Fermented Goat’s Milk and Kefir for these reasons also.
4. Mechanical Removal of the biofilm before/after it becomes plaque
How? By hand scraping? Brushing? Professional veterinary cleaning? Bones? It goes without arguing that the most thorough way to clean teeth is by a veterinarian under anesthesia, where the teeth can even be cleaned below the gum line, and the teeth can be thoroughly polished after the removal of tarter. But, there are the downsides of the risk anesthesia and the ever increasing cost. Also, this is just a temporary measure. Sadly, within hours of even a professional cleaning, the bacterial populations will start back up. So it is extremely important to have daily home care of the teeth. We can help our dogs here!
Hand scraping without polishing will damage dental enamel. I do not recommend scraping dogs’ teeth without following it with sufficient polishing, which is about impossible to do right without the proper equipment.
Some raw feeders like to use raw bones for nutrition and to help keep teeth clean. However, raw bones come with the risk of breaking teeth and bones may also be a choking hazard. I personally do not feed raw bones (though I will use ground bones and bone broth for nutrition). Never feed cooked bones or ANY weight bearing bones. I know many raw feeders may disagree with me on this, but this I am sharing my honest opinion. We can do a lot to help our dogs by brushing their teeth which gently mechanically removes the biofilm. Years ago, I started brushing my dogs’ teeth. Due to personal circumstances in the late 90’s, I stopped brushing their teeth for a while. I saw very quickly a huge increase in the amount of tartar building up in my dogs’ mouths! Never ever use human toothpaste for a dog, some contain xylitol which is fatal, none are meant to be swallowed and dogs don’t spit out toothpaste! There are many dental products made for dogs but choose wisely. READ the ingredients. There are many products I avoid due to containing unnatural ingredients. Board certified veterinary dentists have told me the mechanical action of brushing is the critical part and even brushing without paste or gel will help. I do find, however, some products do seem to help some, others do not.
Now, if you have never brushed your dogs teeth, don’t expect to just pick up a brush and be able to do this on the first try! This is, after all, a rather alien concept for a dog to accept why we are sticking a plastic stick in their mouths and moving it around!! Many dogs don’t even like their mouths touched. You need to condition a dog to accepting teeth brushing. I use positive reinforcement and my dogs fight to get their turn at teeth brushing! I start by just handling their mouth and clicking and treating. Gradually, I open the lips, click and treat. I build up to touching the teeth, touching a toothbrush to the teeth and so on. If you are not familiar with the process of teaching a dog to accept something this way, please get an experienced person to work with you.
But how do you reward teeth brushing and not undo everything you just did by brushing their teeth after eating?
This has been a dilemma of mine —until recently! I now use Answers Rewards after I brush my dogs’ teeth. Not only do my dogs absolutely love these treats, but they are full of probiotics and have other healthy ingredients good for their immune systems.
Just go in small steps, several times a day. Take your time. It is very important to make the rewards worth it for you dog. My most recent puppy used to act like I was killing her, just by touching her mouth! It took a lot of time and patience, and high value rewards, but now I can brush her teeth throughly (and yes, she lines up with the others for her turn).
Additionally, I am really excited to share with you that I learned through my research in dental literature that cheese has been shown in clinical studies to have a protective affect on teeth. Studies by human dentists have shown that eating cheese after a meal will actually help protect the teeth! In humans, the literature states it only takes 15 grams, which is about a half an ounce, of cheese, to have a protective effect. If an average human weighs 150 pounds, it does not sound like it would take much to reach a helpful level in my dogs! I see no reason why this benefit would not apply to dogs. (One Answers Reward weighs about 0.2 ounces, by the way).
So using Answers Rewards to positively reward my dogs accepting teeth brushing has been win/win! I am giving my dogs probiotics to help their oral and GI flora, I am rewarding them for accepting brushing and the cheese is helping prevent the bacteria acting on the teeth in the first place!
Will you pledge to start incorporating home dental care to help protect your dog’s health today?
It may be one of the most important steps you can take to influence your dog’s health. I really can’t emphasize enough how important it is for you to start incorporating at least once daily brushing into your pet care routine. However, if you absolutely can’t brush their teeth, please at least feed a species appropriate raw meat based diet and follow the meal with a raw goat’s milk based Rewards!