Owning a dog comes with many responsibilities, from brushing their fur to brushing their canines. Unfortunately, while many pet owners are diligent about good grooming, they don't regularly tend to Fido's teeth.
As with humans, lack of dental care has its repercussions. According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, "more than 80 percent of dogs develop periodontal disease by three years of age." To stem the tide of tartar, various dog treats have appeared in recent years, such as Greenies Canine Dental Chews and Natural Balance Dental Chews, that purport to positively impact a pooch’s oral health. But do they actually work?
"They can certainly have a positive impact," says Dr. Michael Tuder, owner and director of four animal hospitals in Hudson County, N.J. "If that’s the only thing an owner will do, at least it’s something. The way these dental treats are produced, they have a matrix that allows them to microscopically rub against the teeth and remove debris."
Recently another product appeared on shelves, Milk-Bone Brushing Chews dental treats, that representatives claim, if fed daily, are “clinically proven to be as effective as brushing a dog’s teeth twice per week based on the reduction of tartar and bad breath.”
The chews were released following the first clinical trials to determine the baseline efficacy of brushing a dog’s teeth, says the company.
"The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) recommends daily brushing for optimal effectiveness, twice daily even better," says Dr. Jan Bellows, DVM, a board certified veterinary dentist in Weston, Fla. and a paid consultant for Milk-Bone. "While daily brushing is the gold standard for a dog’s oral care, I know that brushing a dog’s teeth is not exactly an easy or pleasant task for the pet or pet parent."
In those cases, the chews can "improve a dog’s dental health, helping to prevent dental disease," says Bellows, who is also president of the American Veterinary Dental College.
Shaped like a bone with a 75 degree twist, "along with nubs and ridges designed to help clean down to the gum line like the bristles on a toothbrush," the chews also tout themselves as a low-calorie option.
"With every treat comes calories," says Tuder, who also recommended checking the mineral content of treats for potential conflicts. "A pet owner needs to consider, 'will the treats impact the balance of the diet for the medical effect they are trying to achieve?' and then consult with their veterinarian."
Another concern of note to pet owners is the product's origin and safety.
"An ideal dental chew or diet must be digestible, effective in decreasing tartar, and good tasting," says Bellows. "Pet parents should avoid feeding their dogs bones, hoofs, antlers, nylon toys and any product without the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s Seal of Acceptance. They may taste good to the dog but may cut the gums or break teeth."
Pet owners should also note that even seemingly harmless homemade treats and toys can cause potential damage to a dog's teeth.
"Large ice cubes can also fracture teeth and should be avoided," says Dr. Alexander M. Reiter, head of the Dentistry and Oral Surgery Service at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. "Tennis balls are a popular toy for many dogs; however, they are very abrasive to teeth because they collect tiny particles of dirt and sand and will wear down the teeth and occasionally cause pulp exposure."
Reiter also recommends scheduling a professional examination to ensure optimum oral health in man's best friend.
"Your pet should have an annual oral examination performed by a professional to document the presence of abnormal conditions such as periodontal disease, fractured or decayed teeth, tumors, ulcers, etc.," he says. "Ultimately, there is no replacement for daily toothbrushing and periodic professional treatment at your vet."