Have you ever met a dog with fresh breath? Chances are you've bent down to greet a friendly dog and found your nose wading through a fog of “doggy breath.” What many pet owners don’t realize is the odor coming from their pet’s mouth is a result of poor oral hygiene that can lead to painful side effects -- the most severe of which is known as periodontal disease (PD).
PD is an infection of the mouth in which the supporting structures of a dogs’ teeth are affected. In essence, bacteria accumulates in the dog’s mouth, in an area known as the gingivul sulcus, and begins to separate the gums from the teeth. This separation forms a perfect pocket in which even more bacteria can accumulate; at this point, the development of the infection is irreversible.
We can recognize PD in four stages:
1.Plaque Buildup: In this stage, food, bacteria, and saliva come together in a triple threat. The result is plaque buildup on the teeth. If left on the teeth, this soft, sticky film combines with minerals to become hard tartar.
2.Inflamed Gums: Plaque and tartar continue to accumulate and harden on the teeth. This irritates the gums, which respond with inflamed blood vessels, swelling, and collagen loss.
3.Gingivitis: Bacteria wedge between the gums and the teeth in a small pocket (the gingival sulcus) causing infection, inflammation, and irritation.
4.Severe PD: Infection forms below the gum line, leading to secondary complications like tooth abscess, mobile (loose) teeth, and heart, kidney and liver changes.
As severe, painful, and expensive as PD’s side effects can be, one might wonder why so many owners let their pup’s bad breath go untouched. Nearly 80% of dogs in the United States have some degree of periodontal disease by the time they are 2 years of age. Not surprisingly, PD is considered one of the top three disorders affecting our canine companions. Not only is the more severe expression of this infection painful for animals, but it can also result in secondary complications like tooth root abscess, bone infections, oronasal fistulas, and mobile teeth. Some research notes that bacteria wedged deep into the tooth roots slip into the dog’s blood stream, resulting in severe “microscopic” damage to the kidneys, heart muscle, and liver.
The issue isn’t a new one, and it’s certainly a relevant one. So, what should pet owners do to combat the development of tartar into PD? There are conflicting opinions and several common methods that should be issued with caveats. Three of the most common:
1.Dental chews are an easy solution.
It’s easy to see pretty packaging with photoshopped pictures of dogs with shiny, white human teeth. If your dog’s breath is tainted, seeing minty treats shaped like little toothbrushes can be an easy sell. Giving your pup a snack to clean his teeth is easy, cost-efficient, and takes little time out of your day. While they can be a decent addition to your dental cleaning routine, they shouldn’t be your only go-to. Many of the popular dental treats contain ingredients like sodium polyphosphates, which have been clinically proven to combat calculus development on the surface of the teeth.
It should be noted, however, that some dental treats aren’t effective in decreasing tartar. Common ingredients also include wheat flour, wheat gluten, and gelatin, which can all contribute to carbohydrate and bacterial buildup on your dog’s teeth. Not to mention, dental treats may also contain minerals that otherwise upset your dog’s diet. Instead of offering nutrients in addition to the tartar-scraping benefits of chewing, dental treats sometimes go down too fast to offer any benefit -- and this is when they can really pack on the calories and become a nutritional detriment.
2.Brushing dogs’ teeth is easy, convenient, and affordable.
Maybe your pup really enjoys unnaturally-flavored toothpaste and has the patience to sit still long enough for you to brush his teeth each day. If so, you two make a great, tartar-fighting team. In reality, not all dogs will allow their caregivers to brush their teeth and not all owners take the time to brush their pup’s chompers, especially if it requires weeks of training and acclimating their pup to the process. Veterinary offices will perform teeth-cleaning procedures, and they often come at a high cost. Pet owners will spend anywhere between $500 and $3,000, depending on the use of anesthesia or tooth extractions that could exacerbate the price. The respective cost for human dental cleanings ranges from $75 to $200 (x-rays add between $100 to $300). This isn’t to say you should avoid dental cleanings or oral exams for your pup at the vet. In fact, x-rays are a crucial diagnostic tool in recognizing periodontal disease development in dogs since 60% of symptoms can be hidden beneath the gum line.
3.If wolves don’t brush their teeth, my dog doesn’t need to either.
Dog relatives in the wild certainly don’t go in for routine cleanings at their local vet’s office. And they definitely don’t stop by wellness stores to pick up a toothbrush and toothpaste after a big meal. Do wolves suffer from the effects of periodontal disease like domestic, companion dogs? They do not. Studies show that wolves, though they can experience dental complications, rarely express PD in the wild. Their instinctual solution is chewing. Wolves are predators that hunt, take down, and enjoy their own meals. That means these animals are ripping meat from bone and have daily “chew sessions.” Like floss, the ripping and chewing motions on flesh and bone naturally rid the wolves’ teeth of tartar and plaque. The biggest problem wolves face, if they live long enough in the wild, is tooth wear due to “the pressure and stresses of bringing down their prey,” not necessarily from eating it.
Companion, domestic dogs that are fed kibble (or meals that don’t require a chewing or scraping action, like ground or cooked) layer on more tartar each time they eat. Dental chews can help break down some of that film (research suggests almost 70% of tartar), but it isn’t a nutritionally-sound solution and doesn’t remove as much as other options may achieve. Dr. Colin Harvey, an expert in periodontal diseases of dogs and cats, explains that “[p]reventing the accumulation of dental plaque and calculus is a habit that we accept for the health of our own teeth, and we can do this for our dogs.”
An effective, nutritious method of prevention we can use to take responsibility for our dogs’ oral health is raw chews. First, as dogs chew, their salivary glands begin to produce saliva with antibacterial properties, which can mitigate plaque buildup. Second, the physics of gnawing on a raw bone effectively scrapes and can reduce bacteria by 79% (higher than the 70% of plaque buildup dental chews offer). Feeding “recreational raw bones” has shown to reduce tartar presence on the gums and teeth of dogs, and raw-fed dogs have visibly less tartar than dogs on “commercial” diets. Aside from the sheer effectiveness of raw bones’ ability to clean teeth are its species-appropriate benefits:
Dogs that chew are performing an essential, daily function that is pleasurable and instinctually fulfilling.
Raw bones can offer unique nutritional benefits (without the dangers of splintering like cooked bones) such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and taurine.
They’re tasty, smelly, digestible, and addicting.
If jumping right into a raw diet seems daunting, you might consider air-dried (not cooked) chews, like those offered by Real Dog Box. The single-ingredient, fresh chews are air-dried, packaged, and shipped right to your front door. With varying sizes and protein sources (i.e. pork, beef, seafood, duck, turkey, etc.), they’re a clean, nutritious way to introduce raw, meaty bones into your pup’s diet and dental hygiene routine!