Holly’s qualifications include:
- Certified Pet Food Nutrition Specialist
- Previous Career as a Registered Dental Assistant, Level 2
- Assisting pet parents with holistic health and nutrition for 15+ years in her pet food stores: Tail Blazers Copperfield and Tail Blazers Legacy
In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- The difference between plaque and tartar
- Which stage of gum disease is reversible
- Which diet is least likely to lead to dental disease
- How to choose a safer raw bone
- Why I don’t recommend elk antler chews
- My favourite dental chews and supplements
- If anesthetic-free cleanings are effective
This post includes affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything, but it gives me a small kick-back to help pay for my podcast and blog.
Those of you that know me well, know that working in the pet industry is not my first career. I have a rather interesting assortment of previous careers that includes a short-lived career as dental assistant. This gives me a little bit of a background in the dental health space.
Did you know that over 80% of dogs over the age of 3 have some form of active dental disease? This staggering number makes dental disease the most prominent of all diseases in dogs.
The saddest part of this statistic is that in most cases, dental disease in dogs can be prevented! Of course, like many diseases, genetics plays a role, but in the majority of cases simple, preventative measures can totally inhibit dental disease progression.
Although dogs and people share many of the same dental ailments, the most common dental issue with people is cavities, which is quite rare in dogs. And, the most common issue with dogs is gum disease, which isn’t nearly as common in humans.
Dental disease in both dogs and people is progressive, and since people have ample access to preventative dental care, their dental issues don’t usually progress as far and as fast as they do in dogs.
That said, there are MANY things you can do to help reduce the chances of your dog suffering from advanced dental disease. We’ll discuss those things during this episode, but let’s first get familiar with some common dental terms.
The first thing we need to learn about and discuss when it comes to the dental bad guys is plaque.
Plaque is a bacteria filled, sticky bio-film that sits on the surfaces of the teeth. You’ve likely had a “fuzzy” feeling on your teeth before, and that’s plaque. Bad breath and red, irritated, swollen gums that bleed easily can also be signs of plaque build up. These red, irritated gums are indications of gingivitis which is the early stage of gum disease. We will get into more detail about gum disease later.
The good news about plaque is that it’s easily removed with basic, daily oral hygiene. In people, that includes brushing and flossing which most people engage in routinely, if not the later, at the very least, the former.
So, if plaque is properly managed through diet and a regular oral hygiene routine, your dog’s dental disease will not likely advance past this stage.
However, I doubt it would surprise any pet parent to learn that the majority of dogs ARE NOT on a daily oral hygiene regime. And, since plaque only takes up to 48 hours before it calcifies and turns info tartar, that’s when the bigger problems begin.
That brings us to our next dental problem: Tartar.
As previously mentioned, once plaque sits on the teeth long enough, it mineralizes into tartar.
Tartar is brown or yellowish in appearance and is hard and rough. It’s a lot like barnacles on a ship. The rough texture makes tartar an even more attractive hiding place for plaque to adhere to causing more irritation to the gums.
Tartar can exist both above and below the gum-line and it causes bad breath.
Next, let’s talk about gingivitis.
If you take a peek inside your dog’s mouth and see redness along the gum-line, that’s gingivitis. The gums may also bleed easily, and there may be inflammation as well as bad breath.
Gingivitis is the initial phase of gum disease, and can be prevented by routinely removing plaque and tartar from the teeth.
Gingivitis is also the ONLY reversible stage of gum disease.
When plaque and tartar are allowed to sit on the tooth surfaces for an extended period of time, they can advance gingivitis to the next stage of gum disease which is periodontitis.
Periodontitis in people and pets is most often preventable, but sadly it is not reversible.
Once gum disease has advanced to this stage, gum recession and bone loss begins to occur when the gums and bone start to shrink away from the teeth due to tartar buildup.
When bone loss occurs, teeth become mobile or loose. Once teeth become loose, they will likely fall out or require extraction.
So now that we’re familiar with a few key terms, what can be done to prevent dental disease in dogs?
Prevention and Treatment of Dental Disease
Before we get started into the prevention and treatment of dental care, I have to throw in my disclaimers.
Although I’ll be recommending some products, please keep in mind that the ingredients and quality of products can change quickly. Even the ownership in the company can change affecting my opinion. Therefore, when I recommend a product in this podcast, it’s only attesting to the quality of the product as of the date of this recording.
Also, nothing in any of my podcasts or blogs is meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Please ensure you see your vet for a proper diagnosis.
Alright, so although plaque and tartar often get used interchangeably when talking about products and treatment, as we’ve learned, they’re not the same thing. Plaque is much more easily removed than tartar, and therefor I have different recommendations for both.
For dogs, plaque could be prevented with a low-carb diet or removed with regular tooth brushing, dental chews, or other LOW CARB chews like raw meaty bones or bully sticks.
Low Carb Diet
I mention a low carb diet, because the sugar in carbs is a major contributor to advancing dental disease. The bacteria in plaque feed off of sugars and then turn things from bad to worse in the mouth. Dogs also lack the enzyme, salivary amylase in their saliva which helps to break down carbohydrates in the mouths of humans.
Have you heard the old wives tale, “kibble cleans teeth”? Not only is that false, but the high number of carbs and sugars in kibble could actually contribute to advancing dental disease. I think it would be equivalent to telling humans to forgo the toothbrush and chew crackers instead! Doesn’t make much sense, does it?
Feeding your dog a low-carb diet, preferably freeze-dried or raw, will be your dog’s best defence in preventing plaque build up.
Daily tooth brushing is what we’d consider the gold standard of preventive oral care, however, most people will not, or can not, do that.
If daily toothbrushing is not an option, I’d still highly encourage you to attempt to brush your dog’s teeth a few times a week!
The first thing you want to find yourself is a toothbrush and dog safe toothpaste.
In some cases, wrapping a clean gauze around your finger and using that as a toothbrush might work best. You can also use a tooth brush designed for dogs, or a soft-bristled human toothbrush. There are even brushes designed to fit onto your finger that work quite nicely too.
Toothpaste can be used to entice your dog to accept the brushing and many also contain ingredients that help destroy bacteria. There are A LOT of dog toothpastes on the market that are garbage, so when in doubt, you can also make your own.
Take 1 TBSP of coconut oil and mix with 1/16 of a teaspoon of probiotics like Adored Beast’s Love Bugs (see link at the bottom of this page). Some other toothpastes I like are Vet’s Best Enzymatic toothpaste and 4Legger’s Dental Powder.
In any case, ensure you’re brushing along the gum-line, and teach your dog to accept toothbrushing in a positive manner. That might mean only brushing a few teeth at a time until your dog gets used to it.
Commercial Dental Chews
With commercial dental chews, you have to be wary of the quality of the ingredients, like with anything else you feed your dog. That’s a subject too big for this episode, but some of my current favourites are Plaque Off Dental Chews (excluding peanut butter and banana), Fruitables Bioactive Dental Chews and NPIC Bone-A-Mints Dental Chews.
Body Part Chews and Raw Meaty Bones
Another option is providing low-carb edible chews like bully sticks or raw meaty bones like: chicken necks, duck necks, turkey necks, duck feet, chicken feet and whole fish like sardines and herring which can help remove plaque before it becomes problematic. They may also help remove plaque between the teeth.
Although there are many chew products on the market that claim to remove tartar, the truth is that in order for tartar to be chipped off the teeth effectively and reliably, your dog would need to chew something that matches in hardness and there are both risks and rewards to that.
Raw Recreational Bones
Raw recreational bones are a great way to chip off and remove tartar as well as massage the gums. Dogs can spend hours chewing a raw bone, and tearing the meat off of these bones can provide a flossing action as well.
However, chewing anything hard enough to remove tartar can also increase the risk of your dog fracturing a tooth. You have to weigh the risk vs the reward and only you can make that choice for your dog.
How I personally mitigate risk is that I choose bones that are NOT weight-bearing. For example, leg femurs are hard, dense bones because they need to be strong in order to bear the weight of an entire animal. The larger the animal, the harder and denser the leg bones are.
Neck bones are only supporting the weight of the head, and rib bones are not supporting anything they’re only protecting organs. These are the raw bones I choose for my dogs.
You can also choose bones that are too large to fit between the top and bottom teeth. For instance, large knuckles require that your dog rub the outside surfaces of their teeth in order to chew, rather than fitting the bone between the top and bottom teeth which could easily fracture a tooth.
To clarify this further, imagine that you could easily fit two fingers between your top and bottom molars, but you could not fit a baseball. Therefor, you could bite down with considerable force easily on your fingers, but you couldn’t do the same on a baseball.
Even though ribs and neck bones DO fit between the molars, they aren’t as hard as the weight-bearing bones so I feel they’re less risky for my dogs.
Keep in mind, when I recommend bones it’s ALWAYS raw bones, never cooked. Cooked bones can easily fracture and they’re hard and sharp and can cause internal damage.
When I recommend bones to remove tartar, I don’t include raw meaty bones in this category. Chicken necks for example are not hard enough to reliably remove tartar.
Elk Antlers are also effective at removing tartar, but they are HARD, and they fit perfectly between the molars. For that reason, I don’t use or recommend antlers.
You may have also seen non-edible chews like Nylabones or Benebones. These chews are also very hard, and very likely could chip off tartar. Personally, I find the risk of tooth fracture too high for me and I don’t personally recommend these chews.
Another con to non-edible chews is that most dogs find them boring, so in order to entice them to chew on them, they often put unhealthy flavours on them.
If a person insists on purchasing a chew like this, Benebone is the only chew I’ve found that I am ok with selling, and that’s excluding their bacon varieties which are not approved in our stores.
All that being said, during my career as a dental assistant, I had people come in with broken teeth from eating a sandwich! I personally recently chipped a tooth while eating eggs. So, all we can do is reduce risk, but the risk is never entirely gone.
Another option for removing tartar is through dental cleanings. This is also your best option, although it too comes with pros and cons.
The best thing about a Veterinary cleaning is that while under anesthesia your vet can get a good look in the mouth and potentially find other problems like broken teeth or lumps and bumps. They can also check for loose teeth and they can do a through cleaning below the gum-line.
The biggest con is it’s expensive, and anesthetic comes with risks too. Some dogs cannot be put under due to age or a weak heart.
That might lead pup parents into considering anesthetic-free cleanings.
I’ll admit, I am really torn on these cleanings. Up until about a week ago, I felt that the biggest pro to anesthetic-free cleanings was aesthetic since you cannot do a through dental cleaning below the gum-line.
However, recently on Instagram I saw a before and after photo posted by an anesthetic-free cleaning service of a dog with that had SEVERE tartar build up. Probably the worst I’ve ever seen.
You could clearly see the roots of the dog’s teeth in the after photo, meaning the dog’s dental disease had progressed beyond repair. When I commented on the photo, the poster mentioned the dog could not go under anaesthetic due to a health condition. She even updated me a few days later to let me know the teeth had fallen out on their own after the cleaning.
The tartar on the teeth was the only thing holding them in!
To me, this option is better than leaving it and making the dog suffer. My current opinion is that anesthetic-free cleanings are not a replacement for a veterinary cleaning, but it can be an alternative in some situations.
You can also try dental supplements that help keep the mouth fresh by either preventing or removing tartar.
Plaque Off powder contains Ascophyllum Nodosum which is an algae harvested along the North Atlantic coast. Surprisingly, we get really great feedback from this product. You wouldn’t think something so simple could be so effective.
LEBA spray is another product we get great feedback on, although it’s more expensive than Plaque Off, and some dogs don’t like the spray action.
There are also water additives that claim to help reduce plaque and tartar, and help with bad breath. There are tons of these on the market, but the only one approved to sell in our stores is Slurp ’N Fresh.
So, to sum this all up in a few sentences, the natural progression of dental disease is that first, plaque forms on the teeth. If plaque isn’t removed daily, it can mineralize into tartar. Plaque and tartar both above and below the gum-line causes gingivitis, which is the first and the only reversible stage of gum disease.
If gingivitis goes untreated, it can lead to periodontitis which is an advanced stage of gum disease. At this stage, gums and jaw bone start to recede, or shrink away from the tooth. When the gums and bone in the jaw begin to recede, it can create mobility in the teeth which will more than likely lead to teeth falling out or requiring extraction.
Another unfortunate side-effect of dental disease is the potential for the bacteria in the mouth to enter the blood stream and create potentially life-threatening problems to the organs in the body like the heart or the kidneys.
Dental disease in most dogs is preventable with a low carb diet and a regular oral-hygiene regime.
My 7 and 11 year old dogs, Pebbles and Grizz, have never required a dental cleaning. Kingsley is 8 and has never had one, but I do notice that he’s got a dry mouth which can be genetic and can contribute to tartar build up. Although he’s got more staining than the other two dogs, our veterinarian has never recommended a dental cleaning for him.
My dogs are fed freeze-dried and raw diets predominantly, but more importantly, they do not eat any starchy carbs. I don’t feed cookie treats or kibble to any of my dogs.
I don’t give raw bones as often as I should, and I don’t brush their teeth or add any dental supplements. So, I personally feel it’s the lack of carbs in their diets that are keeping their mouths healthy.
This doesn’t mean that YOUR dog doesn’t require dental cleanings, tooth brushing or any of the suggestions previously mentioned! All dogs are unique, so see your veterinarian for a proper diagnosis.
Above is a photo of Grizz’s “accidental dental cleaning” that he got when he went under for a tooth extraction. As you can see, aside from a TINY bit of staining being removed, he really didn’t need a cleaning and I wasn’t aware he was getting one! Regardless, the after images are a great example of what healthy teeth and gums should look like.
Resources from this Episode:
- PODCAST: The Many Benefits of Feeding a Raw Diet to Your Dog
- WEBSITE: Tail Blazers Legacy – Dental Products
- WEBSITE: Tail Blazers Copperfield – Dental Products
- WEBSITE: Adored Beast Love Bugs (Affiliate Link – Canada)
- WEBSITE: Adored Beast Love Bugs (Affiliate Link – USA)
- BOOK: Feeding Dogs by Dr. Conor Brady (Affiliate Link)
- Everything Pup Podcast Community on Facebook