Dental Product Dos and Don’ts (Part 1: Don’ts)

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pet Dental Products

During every veterinary exam I perform (and if my math is correct, I’ve done well over 100,000 of these throughout my 22 years in practice), I look carefully at my patients’ teeth. That is, if they let me. And the vast majority will!

When I’m in there, I know I can only get a limited look. After all, no pet enjoys getting lips lifted and teeth touched by foreign fingers. But there are always a few things that become immediately apparent to any seasoned observer:

  • The amount of tartar build-up on the teeth
  • The degree of redness and puffiness of the gums closest to the teeth
  • The color of the teeth
  • The integrity of the teeth (are any chipped or fractured?)
  • The odor (hard to miss)

It’s at this point when I’ll comment on my findings, pulling no punches and speaking nothing but the honest truth. 20% of the time I’m pleased to offer a good report. The rest of the time? Not so much…

Whether the review is favorable or not, I’m always prompted to ask about how the teeth are handled at home. I always approach my pet people from a point of view that assumes they do something for their pet’s teeth.

What did I find out? 75% of my clients never brush their pets’ teeth. 75% consider hard food a reasonable approach to dental health. And finally, 75% believe that tartar control treats and chews are beneficial. The vast majority, in fact, believe that crunchy stuff and stuff marketed for oral health are all a pet needs.

However, according to the Veterinary Oral Health Council, nothing could be further from the truth. Don’t get me wrong; chews are great. Pets need to chew on stuff for lots of reasons, including for their oral health. But there’s a downside too.

Unfortunately, when I inform my dog-owning clients that certain “dental health” products can lead to serious problems, many can’t easily accept the notion that dental fractures, gastrointestinal obstruction, and gastroenteritis (among other problems) are possible outcomes. "After all," they say, "how could anything sold expressly to help improve our pets’ dental health and behavior so adversely affect them?"

Yet it’s true. Some of the most commonly marketed “oral health improvement” items are considered unsafe, unwholesome, and/or downright unhelpful by board-certified veterinary dentists (and by plenty of run-of-the-mill vets like me too).

But here’s the thing: While many dogs won’t experience safety issues with the goods veterinary dentists suggest you should eschew, as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Which is why I say you should steer clear of the following six “dental health” products:

#1 Rawhides

I used to have a Boxer who would swallow these whole, only to turn blue in the process of regurgitating them. Now, you might ask why I’d give her the second rawhide after watching her do such a thing, but in my defense, I was trying to see whether different sizes might actually get chewed properly. No such luck. To my credit, I always watched carefully just in case a tracheotomy might be in order.

Honestly, though, some dogs tolerate these just fine. And they can be good for the teeth once they become soft and yielding. Just be sure that:

  • He actually chews it (otherwise, it’s not only useless but also a potential gastrointestinal obstruction)
  • You know how many calories you’re offering when you give him that ginormous one you hope will keep him busy all day
  • You never leave him unsupervised with it

#2 Dried Pig Ears

These aren’t strictly off limits. However, as with rawhides, however, they can be swallowed whole by some dogs. And these fatty morsels do have far more calories than you’d expect. Moreover, some fat-sensitive dogs can be prodded into pancreatitis by consuming one. Overall, it’s probably not the best idea.

#3 Antlers

I have one patient who not only fractured a tooth, but she also developed a terrible fungal infection at her gum line after eating one. All in all, it was a very strange situation. The good news, though, is that most dogs seem to enjoy these chews, and most do not fracture their teeth while chewing them (much less develop fungal infections). Still, I say you should beware.

#4 Cooked Bones

Though there’s a lively debate when it comes to whether it’s safe or not to feed raw, meaty bones, there’s none on the subject of cooked bones. These hard-as-a-rock, splinter-prone bones aren’t good for the teeth or the GI tract.

#5 Hard Cheese Treats

Often marketed as “Himalayan” dog treats, these expensive chews can be hard as rocks. If a dog sucks on them like a lozenge then fine. If you hear the sharp click of teeth, consider another alternative.

#6 Cow Hooves

As with cooked bones and antlers, cow hooves are generally considered a bad idea for pets. Not only do they increase the risk of a tooth fracture and foreign body ingestion, they also don’t do much to improve dental health.

Dr. Jan Bellows, board-certifiec veterinary dentist and owner of Hometown Animal Hospital in Weston,Florida, says products that offer hard, unyielding surfaces are unlikely to offer much help against tartar buildup and gum disease.He urges pet owners to “make sure that whatever they use bends and allows teeth to sink in.”

But none of this should lead pet owners to assume that all chews and treats are a no-no. Dr. Bellows recommends that pet owners head on over to VOHC.org where the Veterinary Oral Health Council offers a seal of approval to dental products deemed effective against periodontal disease in pets. Still, it’s important to be cautious, he says.

Dr. John Huff, board-certified veterinary dentist at Alameda East Animal Hospital in Denver, CO, agrees. Here’s what he says when it comes to assessing the safety and efficacy of dental chews and tartar-control products: "Though I have found all the VOHC products to be safe and effective, [VOHC] does not test for safety.”

Moreover, he urges pet owners to keep things in perspective: "'Effective' is relative. If brushing is a hundred [percent], treats and chews are probably a one." He adds, "The positives on the VOHC-approved dental products are [that] they are better than nothing.”

Which, I’m afraid, can’t be said for the above products. Proceed to feed any of the above at your pets’ peril. And whatever you do, don’t skip that nightly brushing your veterinarian recommends. 

So what can you do?  Check out this post for pet dental products that work.

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