Take a Bite Out of Plaque

Eighty percent of dogs have some form of dental disease by the time they’re 3. But proper care can turn your pet’s mouth—and health—around.

Does your dog’s breath make you cringe every time he comes in for a cuddle? Love those big, sloppy kisses—but need to wash your face immediately after? Just because bad breath is common in dogs doesn’t mean it’s normal, says Larry Bernstein, VMD, a holistic veterinarian in North Miami Beach, Florida, and president of the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy.

“Bad breath is usually a sign that there are problems in your pet’s mouth,” says Bernstein, “and those problems can lead to bigger health issues.” As with humans, plaque buildup in a dog’s mouth hardens to tartar, which causes inflammation in the gums (aka gingivitis). Unless you remove the plaque and tartar that’s caked onto your dog’s teeth, bacteria will grow and travel into the gums (aka periodontal disease), causing infection not only in the mouth but also in the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other major organs.

Starting to feel some pangs of guilt for not taking better care of your dog’s pearly whites? According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, 85 percent of dogs have periodontal disease, and by the time they’re 5 years old, most dogs even have jawbone loss. But while these statistics aren’t very hopeful, holistic vets agree that you can start right now and turn your dog’s dental woes around—for good.

What’s Healthy—and What’s Not?
There’s so much variety in how dogs’ gums, teeth, and tongues look—thanks to the proliferation of breeds—that Bernstein says it’s a good idea to get up close and personal with your dog’s mouth. “This is especially important when you first take a dog home, because it gives you an idea of your dog’s baseline,” he says. If you’re familiar with what’s normal, you’ll have an easier time noticing changes that could signal a problem. For dog owners who haven’t made a habit of doing this kind of examination, Bernstein suggests the following quick tests to assess your dog’s oral health:

• Lift your dog’s lip on one side, press on his gums, and then release. If they go from pink to white to pink, you can be pretty sure they have good circulation. If the gums stay red or indented, they could be inflamed or infected.

• Really look at his teeth: If they’re caked with a white, yellow, or brownish substance, they’ve likely got plaque and tartar buildup.

• Look for warning signs that something’s wrong with your dog’s teeth, like pawing or rubbing at the mouth area, showing no interest in eating, or crying after meals.

The Best Food For Teeth
You may have heard that dry food is the way to go, but that’s a myth, says Bernstein. The latest research has shown there’s little difference between commercial dry and moist foods when it comes to good oral health.

Even better than the pet food you find at the store is a diet of raw meat and veggies, say most holistic vets, because it best mimics what dogs ate hundreds of years ago. “A raw diet without preservatives or simple carbohydrates helps prevent bacterial and plaque buildup,” says Bernstein. Plus, the mechanical action of chewing—and the sinewy composition of raw meat—scrapes food and plaque off teeth.

Afraid to give your pet raw food for fear of bacteria? Don’t be. “A dog’s tolerance of raw meat is much higher than ours,” says Bernstein. Since a dog’s digestive tract is short, there’s less time for parasites from food to escape and enter the bloodstream. Still worried about bacteria-laden meat? Here’s a simple solution: Blanch the meat for 30 seconds in boiling water to kill organisms on the surface. This leaves the tough interior intact, but kills most bacteria.

If you can’t afford to feed your dogs raw meat, at least make sure their food is free of plaque-producing refined sugar and white flour. It’s also a good idea to choose minimally processed foods whenever possible—they’re better at preserving your dog’s oral health.

And even if your dog’s diet is great, these supplements will give his teeth a boost. To help them go down more easily, mix them with a spoonful of plain, organic yogurt:

• Ester-C: Strengthens the immune system, which helps fight bacteria that contribute to gum disease.

• Coenzyme Q10: A powerful antioxidant, Co-Q10 is also loaded with other vitamins that help strengthen canine gum tissue, decrease inflammation, and support the immune system.

• Lactoferrin: Slows the spread of bacteria from the mouth to the bloodstream.

DIY Dental Care
No matter how conscientious your choice of pet food, your dog’s teeth still need regular cleaning, and it’s something you can do yourself.

Brushing your dog’s teeth is a lot like brushing your own, except you can skip the interior half. “The part of a dog’s teeth that accumulates the most tartar is the part that’s under the lip, since there’s no movement of saliva from that area,” says Tiffany Margolin, DVM, an integrative veterinarian in Westlake Village, California. “The inner surfaces don’t actually need brushing, since a dog’s tongue cleans that part.”

Brushing your dog’s teeth once a day is the best way to slow the progress of potential dental problems and avoid gingivitis and periodontal disease, which are more serious. This may sound daunting, but it just takes a little time and patience to train your dog to agree to—and even like—the procedure.

Step 1: Train your dog.
• Start by teaching your dog to accept having a toothbrush in his mouth the day you bring him home. This way he’ll realize that brushing is part of his everyday routine. (If you’re starting from scratch with an older dog, take it slow and understand it might be weeks before he doesn’t run away at the sight of the brush.)

• Set aside five minutes each day, preferably right after a walk or a meal, or whenever your dog is at his calmest.

• Put a little pet toothpaste on your finger, and let him lick it off. Then do the same with a pet toothbrush. This introduces him to having both toothpaste and a toothbrush in his mouth.

• When he’s done licking off the brush, verbally praise him to provide positive reinforcement for accepting the procedure.

Step 2: Start brushing.
• When your dog seems to like the toothpaste and doesn’t mind the brush in his mouth, gently lift one side of his lip and brush one or two teeth and a small part of his gums. Then verbally praise him.

• Once your dog is comfortable with this, move on to two more teeth and so on, until you’re able to brush the exterior surfaces of all of his teeth.

When to Go to a Pro
Experts agree that the best defense against periodontal disease is to provide daily oral hygiene. But if you’ve never brushed your pet’s teeth before—and haven’t taken him for a professional cleaning—it’s important to go to the vet. Brushing alone can’t remove heavy tartar buildup, and it’s pointless to brush the teeth if you don’t remove the tartar before you start.

If your dog has signs of serious disease, even holistic vets will suggest using anesthesia to detect and treat disease beneath the gum line—and they’ll certainly need it to perform an extensive cleaning, extractions, root canals, or gum surgery.

“Although it’s expensive and there are occasional risks with anesthesia, it’s the only way that a veterinarian can treat an extreme dental problem,” says Donn Griffith, DVM, a holistic veterinarian in Columbus, Ohio. “There have been tremendous advances in veterinary anesthesia in recent years, so it’s much safer today than it once was.”

Following professional treatment, begin brushing your dog’s teeth every day.

Small Dog, Big Problem

Unfortunately, your little furry friend is especially prone to tooth trouble. Why? For one, small dogs’ teeth may be more crowded, creating odd spaces where food can remained trapped and accelerate plaque buildup. And since the teeth are smaller, gum disease typically travels to the root canal faster, not only creating bigger dental problems but also infecting other organs sooner.

The Bone Debate
New research shows that rawhide chews prevent tartar better than dry dog biscuits, but holistic vets agree that chewing in general—no matter what your pup’s chomping on—will help remove food particles and just-formed plaque. Afraid to toss your dog a real bone? It’s safe, as long as it’s raw, says Bernstein. “Most people are scared that bones will splinter and stick in their dog’s stomach, but that just happens with cooked bones.”

Beyond Brushing
Build your arsenal for oral health with these gentle and effective natural products.

Triple Pet Dental Kit
While this unique toothbrush might look odd at first, its innovative triple-head design effectively cleans the whole tooth in one stroke. The all-natural toothpaste is xylitol- and sugar-free. $7.99; www.triplepet.com.

PetzLife Oral Care Spray
Made with grapefruit-seed extract and a host of natural oils, this product is great for dogs that just can’t stand a brush. Spray it on teeth once or twice daily; it’s safe for cats too. $21.95, 2.2 oz; www.petzlife.com.

Triple Pet Plaque Off
Added daily to your dog’s water, this oral health supplement, made with yucca extract, helps prevent plaque and tartar buildup while reducing odor in your pet’s mouth. $9.99, 16 oz; www.triplepet.com.

Wysong DentaTreat
Sprinkle this cheese-like treat on your dog’s food once or twice a day—the beneficial enzymes, probiotics, and minerals help reduce plaque and promote stronger tooth enamel. $25.69, 10 oz; www.wysong.net.

Zuke’s Z-Ridge Edible Dental Chew Bone
Got doggy breath? Made with natural alfalfa concentrate and a ridged surface to fight plaque, this wheat- and corn-free treat will please your pooch and keep you from falling over the next time you’re caught off guard with a blast of his breath. $3.28 to $14.84; www.zukes.com.