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Crunchy foods, dental treats, chewie toys, raw food and your pets' teeth

Posted Feb 28 2010 10:00pm

If you ate an apple a day do you think that’d keep you from ever having to brush your teeth? No? Then don’t expect a tartar-control treat to do the trick.

Here’s an issue that never fails to get me going: pet owners who expect that X chewing regimen is all their pets need for clean teeth and healthy gums or that all that crud on their teeth is the result of a “slip-up” on the one day they offered the wet stuff or perhaps a consequence of too-few pizzle sticks.

...As if feeding anything other than machine-extruded crunchies is a recipe for dental disaster.

...As if a pig ear a day is offering anything more than a decent gum massage, a ripe opportunity for a molar fracture and 500 calories she definitely doesn’t need.

As with so many other pet care concerns, this is a multi-modal issue, for sure. But in this case it’s to do mostly with us humans. Consider the factors: 1) pop culture’s misunderstanding of what’s best for pets’ teeth, 2) laziness and 3) the food is love thing...a-gain.

Here’s where I offer you what the most current research in veterinary medicine suggests on the issue of chewing and crunching:

#1 Yes, crunchy food is better than wet food for keeping tartar off teeth. But not as much as you might think. One less-than-cursory tooth brushing a week will probably see you square on that score.

#2 Rawhides, pig ears and pizzle sticks can be great to help massage those gums. They’re also chock full of fatty calories and––pliable as you may think them––they break pets’ teeth more often than you might suspect. (Don’t even mention cow hooves!) Then there’s the issue of gastrointestinal foreign bodies as when pets [who “never did that before!”] suddenly decide to swallow the last knob on that antler.

#3 If you really want to offer the kind of dental action these chewies can provide, train them early to enjoy the Nylabone-style, knobbly-surfaced toys. If it’s a no-go, consider the multilayered, highly digestible rawhide versions, instead of the standard ones. Some of these are chlorhexadine-impregnated for disinfectant action at the gumline and the multiple layers help keep it not-so-hard against fracture-prone teeth.

#4 But for my money (and my sized dogs) I’ll always prefer the simple weekly lamb shank––raw. One meaty lamb shank a week keeps my guys chewing for hours. And the calorie count on most shanks is far lower than just one [so-fatty] pig’s ear (usually consumed in less than an hour, if that).

#5 Regardless, I’m not one to boast that my dogs’ teeth are perfect simply because they feast on raw, meaty bones (even if they did so daily). Nothing can replace the abrasive action of a toothbrush and toothpaste––especially when applied judiciously at least twice a week. And here’s where the "laziness" factor comes into play. Because it sometimes seems as if that’s where the line gets drawn. As in, “I will bathe him and clip his toenails and take him regularly to the vet’s but somehow I can’t bring myself to brush his teeth.”

#6 And then there’s the inevitable to consider: Individual genetics mean variable expressions of periodontal disease. Which means that some pets need their teeth brushed twice daily and professionally cleaned four times a year (yes, there are some like that) while others can get away with nothing for a whole lifetime (equally uncommon as the opposite extreme).

So it is that when my clients boast that their Labrador retriever’s teeth are perfect “because he eats a rawhide a day and eats only kibble,” I have to bite my tongue. After all, I have good reason to be skeptical they’d fare any better than the Yorkie’s owner in the next room. I mean, the Yorkie’s teeth might be covered in crud in between professional dentals, but at least she doesn’t weigh 50% more than she should.


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