Dear Dr. Jody: I have recently read that I should be brushing my dog’s teeth daily. I have a very busy schedule and do not have time to do this every day, and he won’t sit still for it anyway. I feed him lots of bones instead. Is that adequate?
What a great question! The topic of bone-chewing is a controversial one. On one hand, bone-chewing does remove tartar and plaque above the gumline to some degree. On the other hand, I diagnose at least one dog per week with a fractured tooth, usually from chewing on bones. In the vast majority of cases, I find the fractured teeth during a routine vaccine appointment exam, with the owner having been unaware that there was anything wrong with the teeth. In many cases, the rest of the teeth are relatively healthy, but that one fractured tooth must be addressed. This usually requires surgical extraction.
Fractured teeth that are not quickly dealt with usually lead to painful abscesses. Sometimes these abscesses will cause the affected half of the face to swell up dramatically, seemingly overnight. Pus often bursts through a hole in the side of the cheek. Dogs that present in this way have usually been suffering from a painful tooth for several weeks or even months before the bacteria in the mouth finally make their way up the root through the tiny blood vessels in the pulp chamber and start to colonize and grow in the bone and soft tissues that surround the tooth root.
The only way to potentially save a fractured tooth is to perform endodontic surgery such as a root canal, often in conjunction with the placement of a crown. Most veterinary clinics do not provide this service, but here at Heartland Veterinary Clinic, we offer a range of dentistry options including root canals and extractions. In most cases, your veterinarian will recommend surgical extraction, followed by antibiotics and anti-inflammatories to assist in fighting the infection and swelling. Within a few days, the recovering dog feels significantly better.
It is up to the owner to decide if continuing to feed bones is worth the risk. Because I have personally diagnosed literally hundreds if not thousands of fractured teeth from bone-chewing, I cannot in good conscience recommend that owners feed their dogs bones. In order for a chew toy to be considered safe, it must be flexible and have a surface that is easily indented with a fingernail. It must also pass the “shinbone test”. If you were to bang it against your shinbone, would it hurt? If so, you probably should not offer it to your dog as a chew toy. If you would not want to bite down on the object yourself, neither should your dog. Dogs in the wild, such as coyotes and wolves, chew on bones regularly. But have you ever considered what their teeth look like? I have performed dental exams on these creatures, and their mouths are typically full of fractured, abscessed, decaying teeth.
Instead of offering tooth-cracking hard bones for your dog to chew on to clean his teeth, you would be well advised to start brushing his teeth at home. Dogs have 42 teeth. That is ten more than you or I have! And they go way back in the mouth. If you lift your dog’s lip straight up, you are seeing fewer than half of the teeth in his mouth. Instead, pull his lip straight back towards his ear. Farther. Farther yet. Keep going. There you go! It is generally those teeth at the very back that are most prone to dental disease, and this is where you should ensure you are brushing, daily!
Even with daily tooth brushing, you and I need to visit the dentist at least annually to have tartar removed from under the gumline, where we cannot brush. It is no different for your pooch. If you brush less than several times per week, your dog should have his teeth cleaned at least every six months.
If “Bernice”, an 800 pound elephant seal at the Marine Mammal Center in San Francisco, can be trained to hold her mouth open and tolerate regular dental care, so can your four-legged friend. Daily brushing and the avoidance of hard chew toys such as bones will give your dog the best chance possible to enjoy a lifetime free from dental pain.
If you would like a demonstration of tips and tricks to brushing your pet’s teeth, please click here for our dentistry page with a how-to video. And if your pet requires a dental procedure under anesthesia, please check out our Facebook video here for reassuring insight into what is involved in a comprehensive oral health procedure.
-- Dr. Jody McMurray, D.V.M., B.Sc.