Pet dental homecare is one of the most important parts of veterinary dentistry… and also the most controversial and overlooked! Below is a guide to pet dental home care to help you make an informed decision.
To set the tone, brushing is the gold standard, However, this article does not emphasise brushing per se – but it does emphasise that doing something is always better than doing nothing. So if you have tried brushing and realised it is not going to work – good on you for trying! Instead of feeling guilty about not brushing, use these guidelines to find non-brushing options that might suit you and your pet, as well as avoiding products that may be harmful.
Most pets can have a program designed that suits their individual needs and behaviour and fits in with your own lifestyle. Let’s take a look at the what, the why and the how of pet dental home care.
Periodontal Disease Is Why We Clean Pets’ Teeth
Periodontal disease is caused by plaque, a bacterial biofilm that adheres to the tooth surface (it is one of the only places you can actually see colonies of bacteria on your body!). Bacteria attract white blood cells, which we see as pus and inflammation. When plaque is allowed to build up it starts to accumulate and extend under the gumline.
Paradoxically the pus does not affect the teeth but it can severely affect the surrounding gums and bone. This means you get gum and bone loss, which will eventually be so severe that teeth will start to fall out. The whole process is called periodontal disease and it is the most common disease in the world!
That is why you should clean your pet’s teeth. Cleaning becomes particularly important in older pets and in those with other illnesses.
Still not convinced? Watch the video.
Plaque is a soft substance that consists of food, saliva and bacteria mixed together. It coats your teeth and will build up quickly unless it is removed. Plaque can be mechanically scraped away and some chemicals can kill the bacteria in plaque.
Tartar is plaque that has hardened. This process can take as little as 48 hours. Tartar is much more difficult to remove. Some chemicals can stop this process of plaque hardening into tartar.
Homecare Programs Are How We Maintain Oral Health
Important!! Before commencing a home care program, it is recommended that you ask your vet to check for any existing oral problems so these can be addressed upfront. Starting with a clean, healthy mouth makes home care more effective and gives you peace of mind that you are not causing more discomfort if your pet has any painful or sensitive areas. In other words, a pet dental may be required before homecare begins.
Homecare is the most important part of keeping your pet’s teeth healthy – it is the ONLY thing that will slow down the progression of gum disease. Pet dental treatment literally just cleans up what disease is in the mouth at the time and returns the mouth to a pain-free and healthy state but without home care disease will progress again afterwards.
No home care method will prevent plaque from forming altogether – even humans who brush their teeth twice a day get some buildup of plaque and tartar which needs to be removed by scaling and polishing.
Effective home care means that:
- The time between dental cleanings will be longer
- There will be less gum disease, which means the chance of your dog losing teeth is less
- The anaesthetic will be shorter, which is especially important for older pets.
- Pet dental cleaning will cost less.
There is so much conflicting information on dental care in pets. Walk into any pet store or supermarket or browse online and you will be confronted by a confusing array of products, all promising to fulfil your pet’s dental hygiene needs. Lots of questions…
- To brush or not to brush?
- Are bones good or bad for your dog?
- Are those special dental biscuits and chews worth it?
- What is that weird liquid and does it actually DO anything?
So let’s step back a bit and look at the basics. There are two broad methods of cleaning that cover pretty much any pet dental hygiene product:
- Mechanical cleaning – methods that physically remove plaque (such as brushing or chewing)
- Chemical cleaning – methods and agents that kill plaque bacteria (chemical rinses, gels or water additives).
- A combination of methods is most effective.
Mechanical control physically removes the plaque. The most common methods of this being toothbrushing and chewing. Chewing is an enjoyable way to clean the teeth naturally, but not all dental foods and chews are created equal.
Methods of Mechanical Cleaning
The (non-toothbrush) products that work by mechanical cleaning work in different ways.
Size and Shape
Some foods and treats have a unique shape & size. Products are matched to the size of the pet. Some products even cater to the shape and strength of the jaw.
Special Textural Characteristics
The semi-soft texture of some foods allow the tooth to sink into the product without it cracking. This creates an abrasive action that can clean your pet’s teeth quite effectively in some products.
Silica is an abrasive additive in toothpaste that gently scrapes away the plaque and tartar
Chewing Hard Products
Chewing hard products can remove tartar and may include bones or certain chew toys. Bones can be very effective but can be dangerous for some pets. The debate around feeding bones still rages, but with a logical approach, weighing up the risks and benefits, you can make an informed decision on what to offer your pet.
Chemical methods use antiseptics to kill the plaque bacteria, or compounds that help prevent plaque from hardening into tartar (calculus), thereby making it easier to mechanically remove from the teeth.
Methods of Chemical Cleaning
Chemical prevention of gum disease is aimed at killing bacteria and takes a number of forms. Here are some of the common methods:
Many herbs are available in pet dental products… with wildly varying scientific evidence and results. Common herbs used in oral health products include baking soda, Calendula, Ceylon Cinnamon, Coconut oil, Colloidal Silver, Echinacea, Feverfew, Fragaria Vesca, Goldenseal, Grapefruit Seed Extract, Kefir, Manuka Honey, Myrrh, Oil of Oregano, Oregon Grape and Vitamin C.
You will see any combination of these herbs in pet dental products on the internet and in pet stores as additives, gels and breath fresheners. Be careful that they are effective AND safe – just because something counts as a herb or it is natural does not mean it is safe and effective. The chemicals below have more science behind them.
Enzymatic chews and dog toothpastes are common. The usual ingredient is glucose oxidase, which turns glucose into hydrogen peroxide.
- Hydrogen peroxide has antibacterial properties.
- Lactoperoxidase uses hydrogen peroxide as a fuel.
- Lactoperoxidase is secreted by saliva and is a natural antibacterial agent.
- The lactoperoxidase system plays an important role in killing bacteria in the gum lining.
Polyphosphates are common on many ‘dental defence’ commercial pet foods and additives. The important polyphosphates are
- Sodium hexametaphosphate and
- Sodium tripolyphosphate.
Polyphosphates help by locking away or binding calcium from the saliva. The calcium is therefore not free to “invade” the soft plaque and turn into hard calculus. This is important because plaque can be removed in many ways. However, once plaque turns to calculus it is usually removed via a scaling procedure – which requires an anaesthetic.
Chlorhexidine is a true plaque control agent that is bacterial and viral killing. It binds to the pre-plaque matrix (pellicle) reducing the bacterial numbers and weakening them.
It also binds well to tissues and teeth, which means that it can maintain its effect for some time. However, chlorhexidine use over a prolonged period can stain the teeth – the stains are temporary and can be removed by professional polishing.
Chlorhexidine is very bitter and leaves an odd aftertaste which can be difficult to hide.
Zinc ascorbate and zinc gluconate disrupt the “operating systems” of the oral bacteria. This decreases the production and release of foul-smelling sulfur compounds from the bacteria. On a practical basis, this just means the mouth smells less!
- Zinc ascorbate stimulates collagen production helping repair diseased tissue.
- Zinc gluconate inhibits plaque and calculus maturation. It also enhances the anti-plaque activity of chlorhexidine.
Vitamin C is a well-known anti-oxidant that works well with certain Zinc preparations.
OK…So What About Brushing?
Let’s get the big question out of the way. Brushing (although indisputably the best option) is not everyone’s idea of pet dental homecare. Let’s not get all judgy about an owners’ choice not to brush!
Pets that don’t have their teeth brushed will usually need more regular dental cleanings under anaesthetic, so you might want to factor these costs into any homecare choices you make.
A combination of brushing when you can and using other forms of home care when you can’t brush is also very helpful.
How To Brush Your Pet’s Teeth
Tooth brushing is the most effective way of physically removing plaque from the teeth – that’s why human dentists recommend we brush twice a day! There are usually chemical agents in dog’s toothpaste as well, which means that brushing is one of the very few methods which allows for mechanical and chemical control.
Spending a few minutes a day caring for your pet’s teeth can improve your pet’s health, improve their breath, make them more comfortable, and save you money on pet dental treatment.
If your pet will allow you to brush its teeth daily, you will significantly slow down the accumulation of plaque and, therefore, the discomfort and infection that follows.
Different pets will prefer or allow different options, so we don’t tend to make one-size-fits-all recommendations. Rather, we believe in tailoring our advice to fit your pet’s needs, your own lifestyle (including time constraints!), and the costs of different options. The aim is to minimise dental problems and the need for treatment under anaesthesia.
Here are some downloads that might help.
- Try the Slow and Sneaky Method as a start.
- Download our sheet on toothbrushing tips
- Download our sheet for more Homecare Tips
Toothbrushes and Toothpastes
Here are some products that might help. Please note that we are not associated with any products mentioned on this site, receive no commissions etc. Also note that VOHC means Veterinary Oral Health Council, an American organisation that peer reviews products and provides a VOHC Seal of Approval if they are worthwhile. Not all will be available in Australia. This is a useful guide, but a guide only.
- Petsmile by Supersmile toothpaste (VOHC)
- ADA-compliant soft-bristle, flat head toothbrush (VOHC)
- Langxian Cat & Dog Finger Toothbrush
- Petrodex Dental Care Kit Toothbrush Toothpaste Peanut Flavored
- Petrodex Advanced Dental Enzymatic Toothpaste
- Pertty Three Sided Pet Toothbrush Dog Brush
- Alfie Pet by Petoga Couture – Flann Finger Tooth Cleaning Gloves
- Biotene Oratene Veterinarian Maintenance Gel For Animals – 70ml
- Virbac C.E.T. Oral Hygiene Kit
Raw Meaty Bones
Bones are a very popular aid to plaque control… and most pets love them. The aim of feeding bones is NOT for the animal to eat them but just to chew on them.
Whilst bones can be an effective aid to plaque control in many dogs, they can have their problems as well. The advice of Dr Christine Hawke and Sydney Pet Dentistry is not to feed bones BUT if you are aware of the pros and cons of feeding bones then you can make an educated choice on their use for your pet.
How Do Bones Work?
Bones work via mechanical cleaning of the plaque and tartar.
Is There Research On The Effectiveness of Bones?
There are no high-quality studies to back up the effectiveness and safety of feeding raw meaty bones.
Anecdotally, raw meaty bones do seem effective – most general practice veterinarians have stories of dogs that are 15 years old and have worn but very healthy teeth from regular bones.
However, referral veterinary dentists see the damage that these bones can cause (see below). The same for and against experiences apply to the wider community and so the debate about feeding bones goes on and on.
What Are The Dangers Of Bones?
The dangers of feeding bones are real and should not be dismissed. However, simple guidelines can make them safer.
Chewing on bones may fracture the teeth. The fracture is usually deep enough that the pulp cavity is exposed, causing pain and leading to tooth root abscess formation. The upper fourth pre-molars (carnassial teeth) in dogs are the most frequently fractured teeth. Canine teeth in cats and in dogs are also commonly fractured from chewing on bones.
Constipation, bowel perforation and pancreatitis may occur. These are serious, sometimes life-threatening GIT issues. You can minimise the risk of these problems by following our guidelines below.
Small fragments from the bone can become caught in the mouth or across the teeth. These animals usually present very distressed and pawing at the mouth. Occasionally an owner will miss this stage and the animal will present because of ongoing drooling, a foul-smelling mouth or reluctance to eat.
Raw meaty bones are an ideal food source for bacteria especially Salmonella. Therefore not only can the health of the pet be affected but so can the owners. Bones need to be disposed of promptly after chewing, so don’t leave them lying around unless your dog buries them. Remember – bones are for chewing, not eating.
Bones can cause worms, so worm your pets regularly.
How Can I Feed Bones As Safely As Possible?
Remember the aim is to chew, not eat, the bone. Strips of chewy, cheap meat can also be effective.
Choose the Right Size/Type of Bone.
For dogs – the larger the bone the better. For cats, chicken wings disarticulated into three segments can work.
Chicken necks for dogs or cats are not suitable – they aren’t chewed enough usually to make a difference before the animal swallows them – remember the aim! Additionally, puppies can choke on them.
No Cut Surfaces
The bone should not be sectioned lengthwise (to “expose the marrow”) or through to expose a cut end. Dogs are likely to hook their teeth on the sharp marrow and fracture them. Most dogs do not need the extra fat from marrow.
Bones should always be raw as they are more likely to splinter if cooked. Frozen bones as they are more likely to fracture the animal’s teeth.
Don’t leave your dog a bone as a treat before you go out for the day. They are much safer if given under supervision. Watch that your pet does not fight with other pets, remove a small fragment that could cause oral trauma or an obstruction, or dig up your yard!
Throw Away The Bone
Throw the bone away after your pet has stopped chewing or maybe earlier if he or she has been exposing the marrow or removing pieces.
Count the Calories
Bones add calories to your pet’s diet – probably the equivalent of one meal. Don’t forget to trim off the excess fat before offering.
Similar or Complementary Products
Products that are similarly hard and carry the same risks as above include:
- Bull Stick Dog Treat / Pizzle sticks (a dehydrated bull penis)
- Deer antlers
- Hard plastic toys
- Dried Yak Milk
- Bleached dried bones with no meat on them
- Dehydrated bones
- Cooked bones
Dr Christine’s Message
There are plenty of other safer, as effective products on the market to keep your pet’s teeth clean! However, if you wish to use bones then follow the tips above as best you can.
Commercial Dental Chews
Chewing is a great thing for pets. It is a natural activity that dogs love, it exercises the chewing muscles and ligaments and of course it can help to remove plaque by abrasion, although just chewing regular kibble has not been shown to do this.
For the same reasons as bones, it is important to be careful of very hard chew toys and treats – GIT problems and tooth fractures may occur. Items with a bit of flexibility that are tough to bite into chunks are best.
How Do I Choose A Chew Treat?
The wide range of chews available can make choosing a chew a difficult one. However the safe and effective chews can be expensive. The leading dental treats carry the VOHC seal of approval and are recommended by most vets. Most chews on the market have NOT undergone testing of their claims.
Specific examples of commercial dental chews would be:
- Greenies (VOHC)
- Tartar Shield Rawhide Chews (VOHC)
- Virbac CET VeggieDent Chews for Dogs, all sizes (VOHC)
- Improved Milk-Bone Brushing Chews for Dogs (VOHC)
- VetIQ Minties Medium Dog Dental Treat (VOHC)
- Merial OraVet Dental Hygiene Chews for Dogs (VOHC)
- Purina DentaLife Daily Oral Care Dog Treats (VOHC)
- ProDen PlaqueOff Dental Bites (VOHC)
- Purina DentaLife Advanced Clean Treats (VOHC)
- SAVOURLIFE Dental Bars
- Virbac C.E.T. Enzymatic Oral Hygiene Chews
- Nylabone Healthy Edibles
- Gummabone range of Nylabone
- Whiskas Dentabits
- Pedigree Dentaflex, Dentastix etc
- Pigs ears
- Rawhide untreated
How Do Chews Work?
Most of these chews have a mechanical cleaning action. Oravet chews also have a chemical action via Delmopinol, which forms a barrier to block bacteria and the formation of plaque and calculus. Enzymatic chews have antibacterial properties.
Treats and chews are best fed daily to have an effect. This means their use can become costly and calorie burdening. The occasional treat will be nice for the pet but will not significantly impact on their oral health.
What Are The Dangers of Chews?
Chews are generally safer than bones, although some of the same dangers may apply such as gastrointestinal problems. Some chews may cause vomiting or diarrhoea. Foreign bodies and choking hazards can be an issue on some occasions.
Tooth fractures are a possibility but less than with bones.
Ease of Use
Treats are easy to use – so long as your pet likes them! Typical quality satisfaction guarantees apply to most of these products although I am not aware of any that provide money-back guarantees if your pet does not find them palatable. The ingredients will vary so be sure to look at them closely if your pet is sensitive to particular foods.
The claims of some products are not scientifically validated – look for the VOHC label. Dental chews are best fed separately to the main meal eg after dinner.
Similar or Complementary Products
Chews are similar to bones. As such, similar (but dangerous) products would include:
- Bull Stick Dog Treat / Pizzle sticks (a dehydrated bull penis)
- Deer antlers
- Hard plastic toys
- Dried Yak Milk
Dr Christine’s Message
Chew products that carry the VOHC seal of approval are generally safe and effective. They can be a fantastic alternative to brushing, or to use on those days when brushing is not going to happen.
Again, many of these products only work to prevent plaque and tartar formation. Existing tartar may not be effectively removed. For this reason, most homecare programs are best started after a professional, anaesthetised, scale and polish.
Chews (at least the approved ones) are expensive to feed on the recommended daily basis.
A number of excellent dental diets are available. The main foods and the way they clean are as follows:
- Hills T/D (mechanical) VOHC
- Royal Canin (chemical)
- Eukanuba/Iams (chemical) VOHC
- Advance (chemical)
- Purina Pro Plan Cat DH (mechanical) VOHC
It should be noted that normal kibble does not have any greater effect at cleaning teeth than soft food.
The only dental food that relies exclusively on its physical characteristics to help control plaque is the Hills T/D range.
Hills T/D relies on a patented and well-researched kibble technology. This includes both short and long term studies of animals fed Hills T/D following professional teeth cleaning, and also animals with existing dental substrate accumulation without professional cleaning.
All Hills T/D products have the Veterinary Oral Health Centre (VOHC) seal for plaque and calculus control. Hills T/D kibble has been shown to reduce plaque, calculus and dental stains in cats and dogs fed the diet exclusively.
Royal Canin Dog and Cat dental kibble are of a larger size than their standard kibble and also claim to have a mechanical plaque removing effect through the kibble texture shape. The ability of Royal Canin to control dental accumulations is via the addition of sodium tripolyphosphate to the kibble (see above notes on chemical control).
These foods have undergone many studies however the products do not currently have the VOHC seal of approval.
Advance has two Australian made products – Dog Dental and Cat Dental. Advance relies on larger, more textured kibble to provide mechanical plaque removal to teeth. Advance dental diets have the same ingredient as Royal Canin Dental (sodium tripolyphosphate) to reduce calculus formation.
Eukanuba / Iams
Eukanuba does not have a specific dental product however, the “Dental Defense System” of the company is applied to all the adult product range. The “Dental Defense System” is that the kibble is coated with sodium hexametaphosphate. This chemical is related to those used by Royal Canin and Advance (see the notes above).
Purina Pro Plan DH Feline
Works by a patented mechanical formula. There does not appear to be a canine version available in Australia.
Ease of Use and Dangers
The foods are easy to use and in many cases have a high omega 3 fat content to make them palatable. Many clients comment on other benefits such as shiny coats.
Dr Christine’s Message
Look for the brands with the VOHC seal of approval. If your pet likes them and the price is ok, they are an excellent option for long term plaque and tartar control (though not as good as brushing!)
The other brands should in theory work but have not been scientifically validated. They are likely very good as well.
Other Homecare Options
The internet is full of dental treats and toys with claims to help your pet’s teeth. Likely you have tried a few. Many make claims or have amazing reviews that sound too good to be true.
Below is a list of other homecare products in different categories. Some have the VOHC seal of approval, some have sound science behind them. You can find more online that may well be a waste of money. Look at the ingredients and think about how they might work from a mechanical or chemical perspective.
- Kaouni Pet Dog Chew / Toothbrush
- RIO Direct Dog Toys for Large Dogs, Durable Rope Chew Toys Set for Aggressive Chewers
- KONG Dental Stick
- Nylabone Advanced Oral Care Dental Dog Brush, Small
- Aquadent (VOHC)
- Mavlab Dental Spray Gel
Gels and Breath Fresheners
- Pettura Oral Care Gel (VOHC)
- MAXIGUARD Oral Cleansing Wipes or Gel
A Final Note
Keep watching the blog because we will populate it with all sorts of homecare methods, products and reviews. We will also be providing specific videos and handouts on how to clean dog’s teeth and how to clean cat’s teeth.
Leave a comment below if you would like us to write about a particular method or product.