Good Teeth Can Promote Good Health in Your Dog

More than a pretty smile
By Barbara Royal, May 2009

What do you think of when you think about dental tartar and dental disease in dogs? Maybe bad breath, or trouble chewing, or even just avoiding being bitten by those yellowed choppers. But usually, we don’t link dental disease to any real health risks for the dog. Unfortunately, this assumption is not true.

Indeed, dental disease can contribute to serious health problems. Bacteria from oral infections can be a chronic challenge to the immune system when tartar and gingivitis go untreated, and the secondary effects of this problem are more common than owners think. These include heart and lung disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, kidney disease, leukemia, cancers, abscesses and gum disease. Clearly, hygiene is not just about a pretty smile—regular dental care is important to systemic health.

Many pet owners are nervous about their dogs undergoing a dental cleaning because of the risks of anesthesia. This is a valid concern, and a veterinarian can determine if your dog is a candidate for non-anesthetic cleaning by examining the mouth for painful areas, swelling, gum integrity and the stability of the teeth.

If your dog has been properly assessed and has a good temperament, the teeth can be scaled and even polished while he is awake. At my practice, we schedule an hour appointment for non-anesthesia dentals and make sure we have techs available to calm and comfortably hold the dog. If the dog is compliant, the dental care can be done within that time. Though this procedure involves the risk of finding something more sinister below the tartar that will ultimately require anesthesia to repair or remove, if your dog has had a good preliminary exam by a vet and you understand the risks, the process is worth trying. Again, this is why I recommend that a veterinarian oversees the procedure.


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Practices are changing in reference to antibiotics as a preventive measure. Though with particularly infected or abscessed teeth, an antibiotic prior to the dental work helps lower the bacterial load, many dentists now believe that the body’s immune system can handle the relatively minor influx of bacteria from regular cleaning. We generally do not recommend antibiotics prior to routine dentals to avoid increasing the risk of contributing to drug-resistant strains of bacteria.

A dog’s genetics dictate what it takes to keep his teeth clean and healthy; not every dog is born with a perfect set of teeth or an even bite, and many are born with a tendency to harbor bacteria that produce tartar. While regular dental exams by a vet are important, you can still do many things to delay or even avoid the need for a dental cleaning.

Diet: Dry food is not better for the teeth; it does not “chip off tartar” and can actually contribute to tartar production by sticking to the teeth; canned food, however, usually gets licked cleanly off tooth surfaces. Foods and treats low in sticky carbs are best—avoid wheat, corn, soy and peanut butter.

You can brush your dog’s teeth or you can let your dog do the “brushing.” If your pet won’t tolerate a toothbrush, wrap a piece of gauze around your finger, then dip it in some flavored dog toothpaste (not human toothpaste—it can be toxic!) or a paste of baking soda and water. At a minimum, gently brush the outside surfaces of the largest teeth. Brushing two to three times a week really decreases tartar buildup. Alternatively, offer a raw marrowbone or knucklebone and let your dog gnaw on it. Good quality raw bones don’t splinter like those that are cooked and are safer for the GI tract (some dogs tolerate bones better than others). Because chewing them can be messy, encourage your dog to enjoy the bone outside or in an easily cleanable area. Throw the bone out before it gets small enough to swallow whole. (If you have young children, you may not want to use raw bones in your house.)

Home Checkups:
Finally, if possible, check your dog’s teeth regularly so he is comfortable with your hands in his mouth. Get to know what’s normal so you can alert your vet if anything looks odd.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 53: Mar/Apr 2009

Photograph of Arthur Smiling © Heather Ballance/

Barbara Royal is a graduate of the Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and has also completed training in acupuncture from the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, Western and Chinese herbal Medicine at Tufts University.

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