Ever had a nose full of dog breath? You know what we mean! Not that adorably gorgeous, infectiously endearing, marshmallow-scented 8 week old puppy breath...
No, we're talking about the pungent, eye-watering, garbage-odoured dog exhalant that hits you like a whack-in-the-face with a rotting fish.
Let's have a chat about THAT.
The thing is, bad breath - otherwise referred to as halitosis - can be a sign of something much more serious in dogs: dental decay. And advanced dental decay is increasingly being linked (via scientific research) to even more severe conditions, such as disease in the liver and kidneys etc. Preferably and practicably avoided. Here's how!
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY DOG HAS TOOTH DECAY?
Many dog owners consider that canine bad breath is normal, and/or do not detect dental decay in their pooch because he/she appears otherwise healthy. The small front teeth and "fangs" may also appear relatively clean, leading owners to believe their dog's gob is in decent condition. But in many of these cases, lifting the curtain to reveal the 'business end' of the mouth will tell an entirely different story. The premolars and molars up the back are where all the action happens, and by virtue of this, where all the gunk builds up. Check out your dog's mouth... what does it look like? What does it smell like?
Unless your dog has a set of glistening pearly whites, chances are there is some form of decay happening. If not, go you!
WHAT ACTUALLY IS TOOTH DECAY?
Just like in the human mouth, this gunk is bacteria which begins as a sticky transparent film (plaque) which can be brushed off. If it remains on the teeth, the plaque then develops into calculus or tartar, which is hard and stubborn, and has to be removed with proper dentistry tools.
Secondary to this, think of your dog's teeth like an iceberg. There's the bit you can see, and then there's the bit you can't.
Unfortunately, the calculus development does not only exist on top where you can see it: it permeates under the gum line, and that's where it causes some real damage. This is the stage at which you hear dentists talk about gingivitis and periodontal disease, and worse. By the age of about 3-4, most dogs would have some decay to this degree, unless their owners have been fairly religious about teeth-brushing from an early age. Sorry Dental-Stick feeders, this includes you, despite your best intentions!
HOW CAN I FIX MY DOG'S TEETH?
OK, so we've established that dental decay is bad... what can you do about it? The key is in prevention, rather than cure. As your dentist might say, it's what you do every day that counts - not what happens in the chair every 6 to 12 months.
FULL DENTAL CLEAN
Firstly, if your dog has established dental decay, have their teeth cleaned by a qualified Vet. A full dental involves teeth cleaning under anaesthetic, where ultrasonic tools are used and Vets clean thoroughly under the gum line (too painful without sedation). In many cases, x-rays are taken in order to establish the degree of any decay and/or defects in tooth structures (cracks, breaks etc.). Heavily diseased or broken teeth may be extracted or repaired depending on the impact this has on the mouth (some teeth are not preferable to extract, due to subsequent weakening of the jaw and risk of fracture).
For those concerned about the use of anaesthetics and x-rays: yes, there is always a very small risk with procedures of this nature. However, the risk (and pain) associated with leaving your dog's mouth in a state of decay and/or not having their teeth cleaned and examined properly is infinitely greater. Owners of dogs at increased risk with anaesthesia (e.g elderly, brachycephalic) should chat to their Vet about different sedation options and/or ask for a referral to a Veterinary Dental Specialist.
Recently there has been a surge in businesses offering anaesthesia-free dental cleans for dogs, proposing to reduce the sedative risks for dogs. Whilst this is an attractive option, unfortunately anaesthesia-free cleaning does not replace daily dental care at home, or a full dental at the Vet. Here's why:
1. Plaque needs to be removed before it develops into calculus. Plaque develops into calculus after 2 days, so unless you book an anaesthesia-free clean every second day, your dog will have tartar build-up.
2. Calculus sits below the gum line and needs to be removed using ultrasonic tools: the pain and stress of experiencing this without sedation is too great for dogs, no matter how laid-back or relaxed they may be.
3. Anaesthesia-free cleaners are not able to x-ray the dog's mouth and establish their periodontal profile, and/or whether teeth require repair or extraction. This is an extremely important part of your dog's dental health which should not be overlooked.
If you're considering anaesthesia-free cleaning, you must do this after a full dental at the Vet, and as a "maintenance" measure before your next clean. In addition you must maintain your dog's teeth at home and ensure they are cleaned prior to calculus build up, otherwise the anaesthesia-free clean will actually result in hiding the severity of your dog's tooth decay. The outcome of doing this can be far worse, as your Vet may fail to pick up on nasty dental disease upon routine examination (as the visible evidence has been removed).
HOME DENTAL CARE
Ultimately your dog's dental health boils down to what you do at home. These are the methods we use/recommend, conjunctively, to maximise dogs' dental health:
1. Brush Your Dog's Teeth
This is the absolute gold standard in dog dental care. You should use a dog-specific toothbrush to do this: either one that fits over your finger, or one on a stem with multiple angled heads. You have to TRAIN your dog to use a toothbrush; don't expect a willing participant straight away. Once your dog has learnt to accept a manual toothbrush, you may consider teaching him/her to tolerate a dog-specific electric toothbrush (we recommend the Petosan Silent Electric Toothbrush). Please remember you must use a dog-specific toothpaste, as human toothpaste can be harmful when swallowed.
Nothing replaces daily teeth-brushing, so if you have the patience and persistence to do this, you've absolutely nailed dog dental hygiene. It's also the cheapest way to maintain a healthy mouth, drastically reducing the frequency for Veterinary intervention.
2. Store-Bought Dental Treats
The process of teeth cleaning has two separate functionalities. Firstly, the mechanical action of physically removing plaque from the teeth. Secondly, the coating of the teeth in a protective, plaque-resistant enzyme (for humans this is in toothpaste) which prevents the development of tartar. Unfortunately, nearly all dental treats and dental foods miss out on the latter component of teeth cleaning, limiting their effectiveness.
As dental treats go, Oravet Dental Chews are one of the ONLY products on the market to contain a protective enzyme which will actually act as a barrier to plaque on your dog's teeth. As dog treats go they are costly, but cheapest bought via online retailers and worth the extra cost for their efficacy.
An extra word on dental treats and their effectiveness: many dogs are one-sided chewers, meaning dental treats will only clean the dominant side of the mouth unless hand-fed to the dog on their lesser preferred side (watch your fingers!). It's fairly easy to tell if your dog is a one-sided chewer... is the tooth wear and tartar build-up equal on both sides, or markedly different?
3. Prescription Dental Food
Many prescription dental foods are in the same category as dental treats, in that they only utilise one cleaning action. Basically, the kibble sizes are bigger forcing the dog to chew each piece more thoroughly, which in turn, scrapes bacteria off the teeth. One particular brand does include a protective dental enzyme, however, upon investigation we found that the remainder of the ingredients were largely cheap fillers. We use this prescription food as a supplement to our dogs' diet, but not as their primary source of nutrition. We won't name the brand here, but if you'd like to know so you can follow our feeding routine, send us an email.
4. Raw Homemade Treats / Bones
Raw homemade treats are a great way to supplement your dog's dental care. Many dog owners feed raw meaty bones, and if this works for you, great. We unfortunately have three problems with bones (we've tried all kinds): firstly, that they cause our dogs to have violently upset tummies, secondly that they seem to break into sharp pieces, and thirdly, they are strongly linked to clean but cracked and broken teeth. So raw meaty bones are not for us.
In conjunction with an extremely high-quality prepared dry food, we primarily use whole carrots (tops chopped off), cored apples, and frozen blocks of minced meat (human-grade, not pet mince) which encourage our dogs to chew their food, cleaning their mouths. Bear in mind, your dog may not physically digest fruit and vegetables that are fed whole/uncooked, but we find apple and carrot absolutely harmless from a gastrointestinal perspective.
Side note: we include prepared dry food and don't feed 100% raw/homemade (i.e. including offal) as we are concerned about meeting micronutrient, vitamin, and mineral requirements in our dogs' diets. But this is a separate blog post waiting to happen.
4. Oral Cleansing Gel
We had a big visit to our Dental Specialist earlier this year who highly recommended the daily use of Maxiguard Oral Cleansing Gel in conjunction with teeth brushing. This is essentially a solution containing Zinc and Vitamin C, both of which are known to promote healthy teeth and gums, cleanse the mouth and freshen the breath. Maxiguard is kept in the fridge, and can be used as a toothpaste or dotted on the top canine teeth twice daily (after meals).
5. Dental Toys
Dental toys are a brilliant way of encouraging your dog to chew and remove that sticky film of plaque from their teeth. We recommend any toy that is made from a tough rubber compound and can be chewed at the back of your dog's mouth. Pop a little smear of Vegemite or Peanut Butter inside if you need to create extra interest in the toy for your dog.
And that's pretty much it! If you have any dental tips or tricks not mentioned above, shoot us an email and let us know. Otherwise, we hope this has been helpful... and remember, next time you experience that whack-in-the-face with a rotting fish, there is something you can do about it!
Remember to find us on Facebook where we post lots of pics and vids of our daily doggy adventures - we guarantee you'll crack a toothy smile!