Dental home care basics
Your dog's teeth need care just like your own. Most people do not realize that dogs get periodontal disease and cavities, something we tend to associate with people. As well, dogs are more prone to fractured teeth, because of the heavy chewing that they do.
One of the most important factors in whether your dog has beautiful white teeth or awful, abscessed jungle mouth is diet. Not so long ago dogs ate whatever was left from the human table, as well as meat, some bones, things they were able to catch when hunting (like rabbits and mice) and a host of other edibles that they don't get very often anymore. The texture of these foods, and the fact that they had to be vigorously chewed and gnawed, contributed to the general cleanliness of the teeth.
In the last fifty years or so, most dogs have been transitioned to commercial pet foods, either the dry kibble for or canned food. Unfortunately, neither of these options is truly effective at helping keep teeth clean and gums healthy. Your dog needs your help!
One option that some people use is feeding raw food with bones (also known as raw meaty bones, bones and raw food, or biologically appropriate raw food). This is not for the faint of heart or the uninformed! There is far more involved in feeding raw food than tossing a chunk of steak to your dog. However, with careful research and preparation many dogs do very well on this "natural" diet. They do tend to have much cleaner teeth and fresher breath than dogs on commercial food.
There are some drawbacks. There is an increased tendency to fracture the large shearing teeth in the back of the mouth (the carnassials). There is the risk associated with feeding any raw meat products that have not been properly handled or prepared bacterial infections like Salmonella or E. coli. As well, there may be a risk of impaction or bowel perforation if inappropriate bones are fed. One must enter the world of raw feeding well prepared in order to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits, but it can be an acceptable way to feed dogs and keep them healthy.
If raw food doesn't appeal to you, there are definitely things you can do to help your dog's teeth and feed him a commercial diet. The only truly effective way to prevent plaque and tartar buildup is to brush the dog's teeth. Dogs and people are very similar in the way that tartar forms. First, a layer of plaque forms (the soft gummy stuff on your teeth when you wake up in the morning). This plaque then hardens into tartar, which is solidly adherent to the tooth and all but impossible to remove without dental instruments.
The key is to prevent tartar, rather than try to deal with it once it has already formed. The way to do this is to remove the plaque thoroughly and effectively, every single day by brushing your dog's teeth. In addition to brushing daily (not instead of), you can give treats that are meant to help remove plaque. Examples of these are Pedigree Denta-Bones, Hill's Prescription Diet t/d, and Medi-Cal Dental Formula. These have been shown in research studies to effectively decrease the amount of tartar buildup on teeth. With any treats, make sure you don't over feed! They do contain calories, and you have to make sure that they are being fed instead of, not in addition to some of his regular food, or you may end up with a very fat dog who has very clean teeth.
CET Chews are pieces of rawhide impregnated with plaque-dissolving enzymes, and many dogs like them a lot. HMP Chews also contain plaque softeners and have been shown to reduce tartar buildup. Rubber chew toys like Kong toys are good jaw exercisers as well, and help remove some plaque. Gumabones are good for teeth, as long as you trim off frayed bits.
Avoid giving your dog cow's hooves. These are simply too hard and can break teeth. Never, ever, ever give your dog cooked bones of any description. If you have to feed bones, make sure you know what you are doing and feed them raw.
Avoid doggie floss toys and other products with similar purposes (they don't work and tend to cause gum lacerations), and hard toys (broken teeth). Other things you might be tempted to use on your dog's teeth but shouldn't include human mouthwash (tastes bad and has a lot of alcohol, which can ulcerate the mouth), hydrogen peroxide (we actually use this in the vet hospital to induce vomiting, so you can guess what happens), and baking soda (causes vomiting).
And finally, avoid the use of human toothpastes. They contain a lot of fluoride, which is toxic to both humans and animals. We can use them safely because we can be taught to spit the toothpaste out, whereas dogs will swallow it. There have been documented cases of fluoride poisoning in dogs whose teeth had been brushed with human toothpastes over a period of time. Use toothpastes specifically made for dogs.
Whatever you decide to do, start early and make dental care a routine part of your puppy's life. When he's an adult dog and has beautiful white, healthy teeth and healthy gums you'll be glad you did!