Most dog owners do everything they can to protect their pet's health, but some may not be aware of the prevalence of gum (or periodontal) disease among dogs. When compared to people, dogs are five times more likely to develop periodontal disease. This happens primarily because a dog's mouth is more alkaline than a human's, which triggers the development of plaque. In addition, unlike people, few pets receive regular tooth brushing. Understanding the symptoms of periodontal disease and engaging in a few healthy habits can help keep Fido feeling good.
How Periodontal Disease Can Affect Dogs
Periodontal disease in dogs can lead to gum inflammation, damage to gum tissue, bone loss and tooth loss. If left untreated it can cause even larger problems. Canine mouth tissue contains many blood vessels. If the gums are damaged, it becomes easy for bacteria to enter the bloodstream and travel to other parts of the body like the heart, lung, or kidneys.
There are three ways to tell if your dog might have periodontal disease: Teeth develop tartar; breath smells rancid; gums begin to recede.
Periodontal Disease Prevention
To reduce plaque and tartar in dogs, give raw bones instead of cooked ones. Raw bones have cartilage, tendons and ligaments that get in and around a dog's teeth and gum line, acting like natural dental floss.
Holistic veterinarian Dr. Ihor Basko tells us that giving your dog a bone can be beneficial. Chewing helps stimulate saliva enzymes and when given AFTER meals for 10 or 15 minutes helps remove trapped food particles from the teeth. Chewing on bones also help prevent plaque buildup and gum disease especially in the back upper molars.
Dr. Basko goes on to say that bones provide minerals and other nutrients (depending upon what kind of bone) and help satiate your dog’s desire for food. Bones provide the nutrients needed to keep the skeletal system fed regenerating and adapting. Chewing on bones can also help pacify a dog’s habits such as excessive self-licking, scratching and other nervous behaviors.
Feeding bones isn’t appropriate for all dogs – certain breeds of dogs just can’t process bones and gain the same benefits that other dogs get from chewing on bones. This has a lot to do with jawbone structure.
Brachiocephalic breeds such as boxers, bull dogs, pugs, and shitzu are NOT mechanically designed to be able to chew bones effectively and safely. A Kong toy might be a better substitute if you have this kind of dog. Look at your dog’s teeth closely especially the upper and lower molars in back of the mouth, the length of the muzzle, and the condition of the teeth and gums and ascertain if the mouth looks “in shape” to handle a bone. Or ask your veterinarian to evaluate your dog’s mouth.
Little dogs and toys with delicate jaw structures and softer teeth should not eat bones. If your dog is too little to eat bones safely, you can still help maintain their dental health using a mix of hydrogen peroxide and aloe vera juice.
Dogs with gut sensitivities might not process bones well either. If your dog is prone to loose stools or vomiting, be sure to resolve those GI issues first, and save the bones for after he/she has recovered. If your dog isn’t used to chewing on real meat bones, they can sometimes have a bout of diarrhea or soft stool after eating the bones. Over time, their system will adjust and they will be able to consume bones without issue (if fed bones on a regular basis).
The best time to give a dog a bone is after a full meal. Why? You don’t want your dog starving when he/she starts to chew on the bone. Ingesting too much of a bone could lead to constipation, and possible serious obstruction. Give your dog a bone for only 10 to 15 minutes, then take it away*, wash it, and store in a container in the fridge. Toss it out after 3-4 days.
*A good practice here is to replace the bone with something else (like a couple of pieces of mozzarella cheese) when you take it away. This will help reduce the likelihood of behavioral issues like resource guarding of the bones. If your dog growls when you approach his bone or try to remove it, definitely seek out a qualified dog behaviorist to help you retrain this behavior!
Bones must be Size Appropriate!
Dr. Basko emphasizes that large breed dogs such as Labradors, Dobermans, German Shepherds, etc. need a large enough bone so they will not chew and swallow it quickly. Bones should be larger than the length of the muzzle so it is impossible to swallow whole. A beef shank bone is a good example of a size appropriate bone for larger breeds. Hunt for beef shank, rib, and large soup bones mostly because of availability, but lamb and large pork bones are suitable for the right jaw and dog. In general, bigger is better.
What Kinds of Bones Should Be Avoided?
Avoid the “3 B’s”: Baked, Broiled, Barbecued
Dr. Basko does not recommend feeding any baked, broiled, or barbecued bones to pets because the heat dries up the bone and makes it more brittle and subject to splintering. Chicken bones and beef “T” bones are mostly the culprits. Keep pets away from these bones!
However, boiling the bone can be useful. If your dog isn’t used to chewing on bones it is best to soften the bone through boiling. This is a good opportunity to make a meat broth for later use. Put the bone in a pot with some water, a little salt, celery, carrot, and parsley and simmer for about 1 hour.
What about Raw Bones?
After the initial few weeks chewing on softer boiled bones, raw bones can be introduced. Raw bones provide more nutrition. Dogs are more prone to wanting to bury fresh bones because they like them to be “aged” and fermented with soild bacteria. This practice is safe (but messy) if your soil is clean and healthy. Dogs need some of the bacteria, yeasts, and minerals in the soil to help digest the bones better. They instinctually know this.
Related: Ten Tips for Safe Car Travel with your Pets
Good Sources to Find Bones
- The supermarket (make friends with the butchers and you’ll find yourself getting better cuts since they’ll know it’s for your dogs)
- From your local CSA (community supported agriculture co-op)
- Meat markets / butcher shops
As with most chewable pet-friendly items, supervision is very important! Don’t buy a real meat bone and then toss it to your dog when you leave for work in the morning.
Check on your dog periodically as he/she is chewing on the bone. Then, when you remove the bone, check your dog’s teeth and gums afterwards. You might see minor gum irritation if chewing on real bones is new to your dog. Eventually, the gum tissue will get stronger with stimulation and chewing.
The most common hazard with bone chewing is a slab fracture of one of the upper hind molars. If a dog has been already been chewing on rocks, furniture, and other hard materials, the teeth might have been already weakened resulting in a fracture when the bone chewing was initiated. If this sounds like your dog, be especially careful when feeding real meat bones.
Certain types of chew toys also help to promote good dental health in dogs. Regular oral exams identify any potential problems your dog may have, and veterinarians may recommend professional cleaning if teeth have excessive plaque or tartar.
Brush your dog’s teeth. If they could brush their own teeth, they would; but they can’t so it’s up to you. Puppies and young dogs get used to it, and some really like it; adult dogs will adapt—but brush your dog’s teeth at least several times a week. Never use human toothpaste—it is poisonous to dogs. Purchase chicken or peanut butter flavor toothpaste for dogs. Use a child-sized tooth brush for small dogs, and a larger toothbrush for larger dogs. Brush the interior and exterior of front and canine teeth. Brush only the exterior of the molars in the back by running the toothbrush along the gum and teeth, just lift the skin flap; no need to brush the inside of the back teeth (at the hinge area.)
Other healthy habits that keep canines in good overall condition include:
- Choosing a high-quality dog food devoid of extra fillers
- Keeping filtered water available at all times for all pets; usually this means in more than one location in the house, and having water available outside if the pets are often outdoors
- Providing plenty of exercise
- Regular checkups and de-worming
- Flea and tick prevention