A Dog Dental Care Guide for Lazy Pet Owners

How often should you really brush your dog's teeth or hit the vet's for a cleaning? Let's talk.

Julia Szabo  |  Feb 18th 2015

Ignore your dog’s teeth and they’ll go away: It’s really as simple as that. Please, for dog’s sake, take steps to keep those teeth clean and healthy.

OK, we know you’re busy, but it’s so worthwhile to make time in your schedule for doggie dental hygiene. The payoff isn’t just sweeter bow-wow breath and cleaner K9 kisses; it’s an overall improved vitality that you’ll notice right away. Dogs do so much with their mouths. No wonder veterinarians agree that a dog with a healthy mouth will lead a longer and happier life — and that means you and your best friend get to spend more time together.

Now that we have compelling incentive to keep our canines’ canines clean, what are the simplest, most effective ways to do that? Read on for expert tips on the best practices for your dog’s dental hygiene. You’ll be surprised at how easy these are to incorporate into your weekly routine.

How Often to Brush?

“Ideally, it should be every day for small breeds such as Yorkies and Chihuahuas, which are more prone to dental disease,” says Dr. Diane Levitan of Long Island’s Peace Love Pets Veterinary Care. “With large breeds, you can get away with brushing every few days. Once a week is better than never,” she adds.

As for how to brush, use a rubber “finger brush” designed for cleaning dogs’ teeth, a handled brush designed for dogs, or a child-size soft toothbrush. Apply pet toothpaste to the brush — stay away from toothpaste made for people, as it often contains Xylitol, which is not good for dogs — and gently polish those doggie teeth. Clean the brush thoroughly after each use with hydrogen peroxide and/or boiling water.

If Spot finds the brushing routine absolutely loathsome, you can make the chore more pleasant — for brusher and brushee — by using virgin coconut oil (VCO) instead of toothpaste; it’s antibacterial, antiviral, and excellent for maintaining oral health. Plus, I’ve yet to meet the dog who doesn’t love the taste of VCO, so the brushing session becomes a delicious treat in itself! (And while you’re at it, treat yourself to a spoonful of VCO — it’s great for human teeth too).

Chew on This!

In between brushings, dogs can keep their own choppers healthy by gnawing on dental bones and treats designed to polish canines’ canines. As we saw above, there’s no reason your dog’s oral care can’t be delicious. Many chew toys are designed to be as enticing to Spot as they are effective at keeping his choppers clean – so keeping his own teeth polished becomes a fun activity for the dog. There are numerous oral-care dog toys and treats on the market, in many flavors and shapes; let your dog sink his fangs into a few different ones until you find Fido’s favorite.

Dr. Michelle Yasson of New York’s Holistic Veterinary Services highly recommends deer antlers, because they do a great job of polishing teeth, and they don’t splinter as bones can. Antler chews are widely available at pet supply stores – or, Yasson suggests, “Talk to your hunter friends about giving you the antlers for your dog; why let them go to waste?”

Raw marrow bones are another excellent, if controversial, dental treat for large dogs, whose teeth were designed precisely for gnawing on them. “It’s not risk-free,” Yasson allows, as there is always a chance that a bone may be contaminated by salmonella bacteria. But, adds the vet, who regularly gives raw bones to her own dog, “the risk is much less than the chronic disease risk that results from not chewing on bones.”

For smaller dogs, look for marrow bones that have been cut into smaller, more manageable pieces a petite pet can get a handle on, or ask your friendly butcher to cut up larger bones into quarter-inch slices. “That way, your little dog can crunch them up like potato chips.” Talk about a fun, irresistible dental treat – bet your dog can’t eat just one!

Dr. Yasson recommends feeding raw marrow bones frozen. “It’s like a popsicle, and the dog won’t get a huge dose of fat from the marrow that could upset her stomach.” Plus, freezing lets you extend the bone’s life: “If your dog gets bored after 15 minutes of chewing, you can re-freeze the bone indefinitely; if the bone thaws out completely, only re-freeze it once or twice,” the vet adds.

If your dog will eat veggies (I’m lucky; my health-nut hounds love munching out on veggies), by all means hand out treats of raw or lightly steamed carrots or even celery — those fibrous green strands mimic dental floss as your dog gnaws on them. Sliced apples contain malic acid and are also great for polishing the teeth — just be sure not to give your dog the core, as it contains apple seeds, which are toxic to canines.

Food for Thought

For years, conventional wisdom held that dry kibble was better for dogs’ teeth than wet, canned food. In actual fact, neither are “better” for dental health — both leave behind residue that quickly builds up to form tartar. Feeding dry kibble is no substitute for brushing your dog’s teeth. Sure, it’s dry when it enters a dog’s mouth, but, Dr. Yasson explains, “It isn’t hard enough to scrape the teeth clean during chewing, and unless it’s swallowed whole, it turns into a powder. Mixed with saliva, that powder makes a cement that sticks to the teeth. Saying that feeding a dog kibble will keep their teeth clean is like saying we [humans] can keep our teeth clean by chewing pretzels!”

Many dog lovers and vets agree that the tooth-healthiest type of food is a species-appropriate diet, i.e. raw meat, for the dog gets to use his teeth to tear and gnaw at the sinewy source of protein the way nature intended – which keeps those teeth in great shape. “Canids in the wild never eat kibble and never get tartar,” Dr. Yasson points out.

When to See a Vet

“If your dog’s breath smells foul, or you notice a lot of tartar on the teeth and redness and/or bleeding around the gums, visit your vet without delay,” says Dr. Levitan. Wait too long, and you could be shortening your dog’s life: If harmful bacteria threatens to make its way to your dog’s vital organs through his bloodstream, via diseased teeth and gums, you could find yourself facing a tragic emergency situation.

Here are some sobering statistics that ought to leave a bad taste in dog lovers’ mouths: A recent AAHA study showed that almost two-thirds of pet owners don’t provide home dental care as recommended by vets. And according to the American Veterinary Dental Society, 80 percent of dogs show signs of oral disease by age three.

With the buildup of bacteria and plaque in the mouth, a foul odor develops. But instead of being recognized for the serious red flag it is, “doggie breath” is routinely dismissed by dog owners as “normal” when it’s not normal at all. Foul breath is a sign that infection exists in the dog’s mouth, lurking and ready to spread through the bloodstream to the heart, lungs, or kidneys, where it can literally kill your dog.

So, when in doubt, see your vet about any abnormality in a pet’s mouth, regardless of the animal’s age. Your dog’s life is at stake.

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