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Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Features July 2016 Issue

Alternatives to teeth brushing?

If a toothbrush designed for use with dogs is what’s best for cleaning your pet’s teeth, what of all the other items said to help maintain your dog’s oral health, sometimes sold with the implication that if you use them, you can dispense with the brushing? Are they effective? Then, too, are they always safe?

Baking soda: William Rosenblad, DVM, a veterinarian specially trained in dentistry, states emphatically that you should “not use baking soda because if your dog has heart or kidney disease, it may add to his problems, and it can also cause issues with medications.”

Cleansing pads: The main ingredient in dental cleaning pads is chlorhexidine, often found in oral rinses that people can easily swish about in their mouths for about a minute and then spit out. Dogs cannot rinse and spit on cue, but chlorhexidine is made available in saturated pads that can be wiped around your dog's teeth. There’s a catch, however, according to Dr. Rosenblad. “Pads don’t really get below the gum line in the same way brush bristles do,” he says. “If you can manage to get there with a pad, then they're okay — with the proviso that chronic use of pads containing chlorhexidine may stain and roughen teeth surfaces, thereby making it easier for plaque to stick.”

Dental sprays: Though these products offer fresh breath, reduction in plaque and tartar, and clean teeth and gums, there’s a rub. “If you look on the actual ingredients list,” Dr. Rosenblad points out, “while you’ll see distilled water and herbal ingredients, the ingredient that removes the tartar is 25 percent (or more) straight grain alcohol. If your dog has liver issues or other health problems, it would make for an even bigger concern than usual for alcohol getting absorbed by his body,” the doctor says, adding that “these products could dissolve bugs off your car in the summer.”

Flossing toys and treats: Flossing, whether with actual floss or with toys or treats designed to mimic flossing action, are not really necessary, says Dr. Rosenblad. A real flossing in a dog’s mouth “would be difficult to do, given the shape of a dog’s teeth. Considering the time and effort to try and do this properly, it’s not worth it, especially since brushing is easier, faster, and more beneficial because you can get below the gum line, which is what matters,” he says.

Furthermore, gadgets such as rope toys that your dog can chew, creating a flossing action on his teeth, come with the risk of your pet swallowing some of the shredded material and potentially getting it stuck in his intestine. And treats that allegedly mimic flossing action are not clear on how they do this. Chewing and flossing are simply not the same thing.

Dog treats: Some treats are said to help reduce tartar build-up. There are biscuits that have a scraping action against the teeth, for instance. But for the most part, while they “are helpful in keeping teeth clean, they do not actually scrub away plaque,” says Dr. Rosenblad. “They’re helpful only because they increase saliva flow, which is good but not all that’s necessary for removing tartar build-up.

Rawhide, hooves, and marrow: There is a fairly lengthy list of bad things to chew, for dental health and for some other reasons, according to Dr. Rosenblad. These include, but are not limited to, “any actual animal bone, whether it’s a soup bone, marrow, sterilized bone, steak bone, antler, hooves, or the hard Tibetan or Himalayan toys/treats.” That can make it tough for some owners, given that those things that last are many a dog’s ultimate treat.

But the problem is that they while they can have a scraping effect on teeth, in reality, they can cause dental problems when too hard, often fracturing the most important chewing teeth.

Rawhide can be helpful as it increases saliva flow while being chewed. But it can also prove risky for the digestive system for some dogs — those inclined to tackle the treasured treat in just a few bites instead of savoring it for a while.

There is actually a risk of esophageal obstruction or intestinal blockage from any chew, depending on how the dog tends to go at these treats. “If a dog breaks off large pieces and swallows them without chewing, then problems could result, dependent on the material involved,” says Dr. Baratt. “So the client needs to observe the chewing behavior with any product and not use ones that the dog does not chew appropriately.” And some should be verboten for all dogs. “They are simply too hard,” he says, echoing Dr. Rosenblad, “and will fracture teeth. These include deer antlers and Nylabones.”

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