Healthy Teeth, Healthy Life for Your Dog

Dogs need tough things to chew and bite through in order to keep teeth and gums healthy. Both will otherwise deteriorate, especially if all your pet eats is soft food — even if it is good quality, homemade food! So, what to do?

Gotta Have that Crunch
Be sure that your four-legged friend has crunchy things to eat. If you make your own dog food, be sure to add some crunch to your friend’s life: Bones to gnaw on (no poultry bones!), carrots to nibble (they may support healthy tooth enamel [1]), dental chews like Z-Bonesor a crunchy low-calorie treat like Skinny Bakes. Indeed, studies have shown that consistent dental care is important to prevent tooth decay and gum disease in our canine companions [2]. The same is true for cats (good luck brushing their teeth, though...) [2].

Gnaw on This
Dental chews have been shown in dogs to reduce plaque formation, which may help prevent gum disease with regular use [3, 4]. My dogs Milo, Zeke and Dolce all get Z-Bones to gnaw on. These also contain parsley, fennel and alfalfa, all shown to improve doggie breath, in part, by supporting healthy digestive function. It’s important to always supervise your dog when he’s working on a chew bone, whether it’s a Z-Bone or other type of chew.

Pooch Paste
So, doggie toothpaste... A Google search for “dog toothpaste” turned up over 10 million hits, so I’d say that this is a pretty hot topic! Regular brushing of your dog’s grill may improve the healing of gum disease in part by stimulating gum regrowth [5]. There are a number of commercial doggie toothpastes on the market. Try to find one that is as natural as possible (avoid those with artificial colors, for instance). Also, many contain glycerin, a petrochemical byproduct. Instead, look for those that have vegetable glycerin. Remember that your dog doesn’t necessarily like the same flavors that we do, so think liver or chicken, not wintergreen.

Absolutely do not use people toothpaste. Toothpaste for people contains ingredients that are toxic and otherwise unpleasant for dogs. Stick with a dog-specific toothpaste or, if feeling adventurous, you can even make your own! Not surprisingly, the internet abounds with recipes. They usually include baking soda or food-grade clay, an oil such as coconut or olive, and water. These are mixed to form a relatively thick paste that can be applied with a dog-specific toothbrush, a cotton ball, or piece of cloth. Even your finger will suffice. Be careful to add water slowly so that the paste doesn’t become too watery.

Paste Enhancers
Optional pooch paste additions include organic broth or bouillon for flavor, dried parsley for reduced stink breath, and anti-microbial herb powders such as turmeric, myrrh, thyme, cinnamon or others. Many of these herbs also stimulate the influx of fresh blood to the gums, aiding in healing and preventing infection. For herb amounts that are safe for use in dogs, there are great resources such as “All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets” (Tilford and Wulff-Tilford), “Dr. Kidd’s Guide to Herbal Dog Care” (Kidd), and “Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats” (Pitcairn and Pitcairn).

Brush-a, Brush-a, Brush-a …
Start slowly to get your dog used to brushing. Be gentle, but don’t dawdle and try your dog’s patience. Always reward her with a crunchy treat afterwards, like Skinny Bakes or an appropriately sized Z-Bone. Consistency is key. According to one study, gum health was maintained only when dogs had their teeth brushed daily or when their teeth were brushed every other day and they were also given a daily dental chew [6].

Gum Infections
It’s important to take care of infections, which are usually bacterial and are indicated by red, swollen gums. The bacteria that cause gum disease can go systemic and cause dangerous infections elsewhere in the body. Holistic animal health practitioners will use anti-microbial extracts of herbs such as myrrh, thyme or rosemary [1, 7]. In cooperative pooches, you can apply the herbal extract directly to the infected spot using a piece of cotton [7], but you might consider diluting the extract with an equal part of water first. Herbalist Juliette de Bairacli-Levy rubbed her dogs’ teeth with sage leaves and lavender flower spikes to remove stains [1], and this practice may also help with gum disease due to the anti-microbial activities of these plants, as well as from physical stimulation of the gum line. If the infection doesn’t respond, worsens, or is severe to begin with, get your dog into the veterinarian as quickly as possible.

Dental Health Inside Out
Don’t forget to supply your dog with mineral- and vitamin-rich foods and herbs to support oral health from the inside out. Examples include seaweeds, alfalfa and oatstraw. Vitamin C may be helpful to help prevent infections from starting in the first place by for immune health. Check out Zuke's Enhance Fresh Breath Functional Chews, which contain a perfect balance of cinnamon, dill, fennel, myrrh, parsley, and sage. For more specific guidance on supplementing your dog’s diet, see one of the books I mentioned above, and happy brushing!

Disclaimer: This information is educational in nature and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical prevention, diagnosis, or treatment.

References

  1. de Bairacli Levy, J (1992) The Complete Herbal Handbook for the Dog and Cat. Faber and Faber Limited, Bloomsbury House, London.
  2. Buckley, C, et al (2011) The impact of home-prepared diets and home oral hygiene on oral health in cats and dogs. Br J Nutr. 106 Suppl 1:S124-7.
  3. Hennet, P (2001) Effectiveness of an enzymatic rawhide dental chew to reduce plaque in beagle dogs. J Vet Dent. 18(2):61-4.
  4. Hennet, P, et al (2006) Effectiveness of an oral hygiene chew to reduce dental deposits in small breed dogs. J Vet Dent. 23(1):6-12.
  5. Tomufuji, T, et al (2007) Location of proliferating gingival cells following toothbrushing stimulation. Oral Dis. 13(1):77-81.
  6. Gorrel, C and JM Rawlings (1996) The role of tooth-brushing and diet in the maintenance of periodontal health in dogs. J Vet Dent.13(4):139-43.
  7. Wulff-Tilford, ML & GL Tilford (1999) All you ever wanted to know about herbs for pets. Bowtie Press, Irvine, CA.

Anna-Marija Helt, PhD, is a research scientist-turned herbalist who practices and teaches at Osadha Herbal Wellness in Durango, Colorado.