By Lynne Miller
It’s not pretty. When a veterinarian opens a dog’s mouth, he often finds teeth stained brown and red or bleeding gums. In extreme cases, teeth are loose, broken or missing altogether.
Infection, disease and other oral problems are far too common in canines. More than 85 percent of dogs over the age of three have dental problems that require professional treatment, according to the Animal Medical Center of New York’s website.
Oral health is more important than you think. Studies in dogs have shown that periodontal disease is associated with microscopic changes in the heart, liver, and kidneys, according to the American Veterinary Dental College.
Gum disease can be avoided altogether but it takes a bit of effort at home. Veterinarians agree it is well worth the effort. By making dental care a regular part of your routine, you can improve your dog’s teeth, help her enjoy a healthier, more enjoyable life and minimize the need for costly dental treatments at the veterinarian’s office.
Here are five things that can improve your dog’s teeth:
Though you and your pet may not enjoy it, brushing on a daily basis is the most beneficial things you can do to improve your dog’s teeth, says Dr. Daniel T. Carmichael, a board-certified veterinary dentist at the Animal Medical Center in New York City.
“Research shows once-a-day tooth brushing is very effective in controlling the build-up of plaque and tartar, which causes gum disease,” Carmichael says. “Every other day tooth brushing is not as effective but somewhat effective. Brushing teeth once or twice a week isn’t going to do anything.”
Take the time to train your dog to accept brushing.
“If you can train a poodle to jump through a circus hoop, you can train them to tolerate tooth brushing,” says Carmichael, who recommends starting when your dog is a puppy.
“Get them used to just having the lip flicked up, looking at the teeth and touching the teeth,” he says. “Do it with love and praise. Just brush the outside of the teeth.”
The act of brushing alone is beneficial as is brushing with just water, Carmichael says.
Do Dogs Need Special Toothpaste?
You can use an ordinary soft-bristled human toothbrush, but don’t use human toothpaste, since fluoride is toxic for dogs. Use toothpaste that is specifically formulated for canines.
Treats that are designed to fight plaque and tartar can help improve your best friend’s teeth, and may be easier than brushing.
Make sure you offer your pet the right size product and watch how she reacts after you give her the treat, the Veterinary Oral Health Council advises. If your dog wolfs down the chew, it won’t be effective and should not be used. Dental treats work best when dogs spend at least a couple of minutes chewing them, the VOHC says.
The VOHC’s recommended products include a soft chew made of beef hide. The fibrous texture helps remove dental plaque and oral debris during chewing, and sodium tripolyphosphate—a clinically-proven additive, and an antimicrobial agent—reduces the development of tartar and plaque.
Products that earn the VOHC's seal of approval have demonstrated that they meet the VOHC’s standards for efficacy through testing.
Food for Dental Health
You may want to try a dental diet consisting of a dry food that’s clinically proven to reduce plaque, stain and tartar buildup.
The crunchy food works by providing more “mechanical abrasion” to the surface of the teeth, Carmichael says. “That’s been shown to significantly improve oral health compared to a standard dry food diet.”
Some foods contain sodium hexaphosphates, which bind to minerals in the food, making them unavailable to form tartar on teeth, Carmichael explains
Think twice before you feed your pooch wet food, since it promotes more accumulation of plaque than conventional dry food, Carmichael says.
In general, dogs should have their teeth professionally cleaned by a veterinarian. “This guarantees the best job,” says holistic veterinarian Ihor Basko.
For dogs that cannot handle the anesthesia, Basko recommends mixing a solution of one part hydrogen peroxide with one part aloe vera juice. Applying it to a piece of gauze or a cotton ball, you can rub it on the plaque on the teeth and where the gums meet the teeth.
“Many times after two weeks of daily application, the large pieces of plaque can be chipped off with a finger nail,” Basko says.
Once the plaque is under control, you can maintain your dog’s teeth by brushing them with coconut oil, using a soft baby toothbrush, Basko says. For bad breath, add one or two drops of parsley oil to the toothbrush along with the coconut oil.
A homemade probiotic mouthwash is also good for oral health, Basko says. He recommends mixing a capsule of a probiotic supplement for humans with a tablespoon of coconut milk or kefir and offering it to your pet after meals.
“These bacteria will help control the pathogens in the mouth without antibiotics,” Basko says.
Regular Dental Check Ups
Like humans, dogs need regular checkups. Your veterinarian should examine your dog’s teeth periodically.
“A dental screening is a good time to screen for oral cancer,” Carmichael says. “I treat oral cancer almost on a daily basis. The best way to have successful outcomes is to catch these things early.”
Schedule your dog for a dental exam immediately if her breath suddenly starts to smell worse than normal. A sudden worsening of the breath is often a sign of advanced dental disease, Carmichael says.
If you clean your dog’s pearly whites at home on a regular basis, she may rarely if ever need a professional cleaning. Animals with hard build-up on their teeth should have a cleaning at the veterinarian’s office.
While some veterinarians offer anesthesia-free cleaning, the American Veterinary Dental College does not endorse the practice. A comprehensive examination and cleaning require the use of a power tool for scaling teeth and hand instruments for cleaning the area under the gum line. That requires anesthesia, the AVDC notes.
A professional cleaning can keep your dog’s teeth and gums clean and healthy.
“The risks are minimal and benefits are immense,” Carmichael says.
Your veterinarian can assess whether your four-legged friend is healthy enough for general anesthesia.
Image: Sergey Fatin via Shutterstock