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If you hang around vet clinics for a while, you’ll learn that certain dogs are infamous for having bad teeth.
The most likely character to have a “peek and shriek” mouth is either a senior dog or a small dog (or both). That’s where you lift the lip to look at their teeth and scream because all the teeth are coated in thick brown calculus. The gums are swollen and bleeding, teeth are loose or missing and the bad breath is enough to knock you over. I can’t even imagine the pain of having the kind of severe dental disease we see every day in dogs.
No dog food can clean teeth heavy calculus from teeth. However, there are several foods with special technology that will prevent plaque and tartar formation that leads to advanced dental problems. My top recommendation is Hill’s® Science Diet® Oral Care dry dog food. Read on to find out why…
Causes of Bad Teeth in Dogs
Plaque is a colorless sticky biofilm of microorganisms that forms on a dog’s teeth. All dogs and humans have plaque on their teeth. Unless it’s removed every day or two by brushing or chewing, soft plaque becomes calcified into hard tartar (also called calculus).
Plaque buildup at the gum margin allows less friendly bacteria to take over and invade the deeper tissue surrounding the tooth. Periodontal disease happens when bacterial infection and inflammation break down the tissues around the root of the tooth. This results in pain and sometimes leads to tooth loss.
Small breed dogs tend to have more dental problems than larger breeds. This is probably due to decades of interbreeding to concentrate the genetics to produce tiny canines. Along with tiny bodies, these pint-sized cuties have tiny mouths. That means their teeth are crowded and often don’t develop the way nature intended.
Dogs under 10 pounds have a higher incidence of retained baby teeth, unerupted adult teeth, crowding and misalignment of teeth. All of these things allow more calculus to build up on teeth and generally make an unhealthy environment in the mouth (2).
Other causes of bad teeth in dogs include poor nutrition (uncommon) and severe health problems during tooth development. For instance, dogs who contract a viral illness as puppies often have brown pitted dental enamel. These defects can be purely cosmetic but could compromise tooth health if they’re severe.
Is Wet Dog Food Bad for a Dog’s Teeth?
This is a very interesting question I’ve been asked many times throughout my career. People say, “I never feed wet food because I don’t want my dog to have bad teeth.” My reaction has always been, “Well, I see plenty of dogs who eat only dry food who have terrible dental problems, too!”
Do dogs eating moist food have worse teeth than those who eat dry food?
Several studies showed that dogs eating wet and homemade food did indeed have more dental problems than those eating only dry food (6). However, other studies found dogs eating wet food had about the same amount of dental plaque and tartar formation (4).
I guess the jury is still out on this question. During my veterinary career, I’ve seen dogs eating every kind of food with great teeth and others with terrible teeth. I suspect there are many other factors at play when it comes to dental health than just whether a dog eats moist or dry food.
Does Dry Dog Food Clean Your Dog’s Teeth?
As I discussed above, we don’t have consistent proof that standard/typical dry dog food does anything to keep your dog’s teeth clean. You’d think that crunchy kibbles would scrape the gunk off of a dog’s teeth but it doesn’t usually work that way.
Most kibble is brittle and breaks apart when the sharp part of a dog’s tooth crushes it. That means there is little abrasive action on the side of the teeth where most of the problem exists.
We must also consider the idea that dry dog food might leave more residue around the teeth to feed hungry bacteria.
Unless you feed your dog with specific technological features to promote dental health, dry dog food is unlikely to keep his teeth clean. See below for some better strategies that actually work!
Dog Food to Prevent Bad Teeth
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is an organization that regulates the sale and distribution of animal feed and drug remedies in the USA. While many pet foods strongly hint that their product helps dental health, AAFCO prohibits pet food manufacturers from making claims about the prevention or treatment of dental disease.
There are several dog food and treat products that were developed to promote dental health. Most depend on one or more of these concepts:
- Large, hard kibble that requires more chewing.
- Fiber within kibble to alter how it breaks, allowing more contact with tooth surface.
- Coating kibble with a slightly abrasive substance to break up plaque on tooth.
- Using a substance that prevents mineralization of plaque into tartar.
At the time of publication, there were 10 dog food products on the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s (VOHC) acceptable products list for promoting dog dental health. The VOHC only accepts products with scientific evidence of controlling plaque and/or tartar on dog’s teeth.
When choosing a dental diet, treats, etc. remember the most important thing to control is plaque (the soft coating on teeth) in preventing periodontal disease. Controlling calculus (the hard brown stuff on teeth) is nice, but it’s won’t help as much as controlling plaque.
Seven of the VOHC accepted dry food products are available by prescription only and three are available without a prescription. I’ll only discuss the non-prescription products here.
The three non-prescription/OTC dog foods on the VOHC’s list are:
- Hill’s® Science Diet® Oral Care dry dog food-controls plaque and tartar
- HealthyAdvantage™ Oral Care for Dogs-controls plaque and tartar (may not be available at this time)
- Eukanuba® Adult Maintenance Diet for Dogs-only accepted by VOHC for tartar control
The BEST Dog Food for Bad Teeth (Prevention)
If your dog has a tendency toward dental problems, this special food can help prevent or slow down disease progression.
This food should not be expected to clean or treat your pet’s teeth when they’re already diseased. Your dog should have a professional, anesthetized dental exam, radiographs and cleaning for existing problems. Once that’s done, start feeding this food to maintain healthy teeth.
My recommendation for the best dog food to prevent bad teeth is Hill’s® Science Diet® Oral Care dry dog food. It’s available without a prescription and has been clinically proven to prevent the formation of plaque and tartar in dogs.
The foods from Hill’s use “interlocking fiber” structure within the kibble. In combination with a relatively large kibble size, the foods provide just enough abrasion to teeth to clean them when the dog chews. These foods control plaque buildup and tartar buildup.
My Second Choice for Healthy Teeth
Eukanuba adult, senior and EXCEL dry dog food products sport what the maker calls “3D DentaDefense.” Foods with this feature have been clinically shown to reduce tartar buildup by 80%. The company explains that their kibble is coated with a naturally occurring anti-tartar agent (sodium hexametaphosphate) that first scrubs away plaque then prevents soft plaque from mineralizing into hard calculus.
It’s important to note that VOHC only accepts Eukanuba food as reducing tartar, not plaque. And since tartar doesn’t play a role in the development of periodontal disease, this food might not work as well as those that control plaque.
Other than the kibble size and special technology, these products are pretty similar to standard adult dry food. Most dogs seem to like the food just fine and dog owners report good dental results with regular feeding of Hill’s and Eukanuba dental food. These foods are not suitable for puppies, pregnant or nursing dogs.
Dog Food for Dogs with Bad, Few or No Teeth
Let’s say you’re in the situation many of my clients are in: your dog has a lot of dental problems but you can’t have them treated right now for whatever reason.
Once your dog has severe dental problems, no food can substitute for a full dental procedure performed by a veterinarian while your dog is under anesthesia. But if you have to wait on that, you need to find food to keep your dog eating.
If you want to make it a little easier on your dog, opt for wet food or homemade food. Once all of a dog’s teeth have fallen out, the lower jaw often gets kind of soft. A toothless dog might have trouble getting food up into his mouth from the bowl.
In this case, experiment with food of different textures-a chunky wet food might be better than kibble. Or some dogs might prefer to lick up food of a gravy-like consistency. You can add water or broth to canned dog food or soak kibble in water/broth until it’s soft and blenderize it before feeding.
For chunky-textured wet dog food, try Merrick Cowboy Cookout. Most dogs love it.
If you want to try a smooth-textured wet food with or without added liquid, take a look at Purina Pro Plan Savor Adult Classic Chicken & Rice Entree Canned Dog Food. It’s affordable, tastes good and most dogs seem to enjoy the flavor of it.
A final insider’s tip… If your dog is super picky and you worry about whether she’s getting enough calories, ask your vet to prescribe a high-calorie canned food that is especially good for picky dogs. The three most common ones used by vets are Hill’s Prescription Diet a/d, Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Recovery and Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets CN Critical Nutrition. As an alternative to using prescription food, you could use high-quality wet puppy food.
How to Keep Your Dog’s Teeth Clean
In addition to feeding special food, here are some other measures you can take to improve your dog’s dental health.
Nothing Beats Brushing
Daily brushing has been shown to be three times as effective as dental chews and dental diets at controlling plaque accumulation in dogs (1). Toothbrushing is by far the best way to keep your dog’s teeth healthy.
I’ve heard every excuse and rationalization there is for not following this recommendation. I know it’s inconvenient and even unpleasant if your dog is resistant. But you can train your dog to accept toothbrushing just as you trained him to come when called.
You can use a child’s soft bristle toothbrush and plain old water. If your dog will tolerate it, an electric toothbrush may be more effective. I use the one pictured below.
You don’t need any toothpaste unless your dog loves it and it makes him want to participate. My dogs do better without toothpaste because it makes them lick a lot so I have trouble getting the brush where it needs to go.
I recommend brushing teeth when your dogs are calm and sleepy, like right before bedtime. Keep their toothbrush in a place where you’ll see it each night and remember to brush their teeth.
Concentrate on brushing the outer surface of the teeth, especially the big cheek teeth and the canines. The inner teeth surfaces stay pretty clean just from the tongue rubbing them. Brush each tooth for a few seconds and the whole procedure won’t take longer than a minute or two.
The health benefits of daily brushing are well worth the time and hassle. Plus your dog’s breath will smell a LOT better if you stick to this habit.
If your dog’s teeth are already pretty dirty, brushing won’t remove hardened calculus but can prevent it from getting worse.
Why not start training your dog to accept the toothbrush now and get his teeth professionally cleaned as soon as possible? Keeping up the brushing habit after a dental cleaning will prolong the period until he needs to have them cleaned again.
You may have seen one of the many drinking water additives that claim to promote dog dental health. Honestly, I’ve been skeptical about the value and safety of this strategy. I worry that dogs will drink less water when something is added to it (as mine did when I tried one of these years ago). It also seems hard to believe that a water additive could be safe and yet still be effective at reducing plaque and/or tartar.
However, the VOHC has a water additive product on their accepted products list: pet::ESSENTIAL™ HealthyMouth® Anti-plaque water additive.
This water additive contains the enzyme papain, zinc gluconate and other natural ingredients. Some of these have decent evidence that they reduce plaque in humans.
Healthy Mouth says their water additive is clinically proven to reduce plaque by up to 76%. The trials were done on 40 blood donor greyhounds held in a kennel environment and appeared to support the use of the water additive for reducing plaque.
However, many vets have been less than impressed by the ability of water additives to improve their patient’s dental health. The product is also pretty expensive.
Bottom line: Try it if you have extra cash, but don’t get your hopes up too high. And remember, the product is a preventive not a treatment for existing dental disease.
Dog Chews for Dental Health
Multiple studies have shown that chewing on tough treats reduces calculus on dogs’ teeth (4, 5). The trick is to find something that dogs like to chew that is hard enough to rub the teeth but not so hard as to break the teeth. The Veterinary Oral Health Council has a list of recommended chew treats that improve oral health yet have a low risk of fracturing teeth.
Greenies are semi-hard, traditional dog bone-style treats made from a compressed combination of wheat flour and natural binding ingredients. It’s a rare dog that doesn’t love chewing on these little green toothbrush-shaped treats. They’re just hard enough to remove plaque and tartar from teeth but not hard enough to break them.
It’s important to choose the appropriate chew size for your dog. Too small or large and your dog might not be able to chew it well enough to get a dental benefit. Check the package for size/weight recommendations.
I buy my dogs’ Greenies from Amazon.com because it’s much less costly than buying them in the grocery store!
As with any chew treat, please observe your dog while she’s enjoying the treat. It’s always possible for a dog to bite off large chunks and have trouble swallowing or get a piece wedged between their teeth and hard palate.
Are Raw Bones Good for Dog’s Teeth?
Raw dog food has become popular amongst a certain set of people. They feel a raw meaty bone diet is closer to their ancestral dog’s diet and promote health. I can see why this theory is popular, but there is little, if any, scientific evidence to back this up.
I admit that I used to feed my dogs a raw diet and the occasional raw chew bone as directed by raw food proponents. My dogs loved chewing those bones, but guess what? They both broke multiple teeth in the process!!! And I was observing them the whole time.
I’m fortunate my dogs’ fractured teeth didn’t require medical intervention but I decided the dental risk was not tolerable. I also became uncomfortable with the quality and safety of the raw dog food products available where I live.
I know some people think raw meat and bones are fantastic, but they’re just not right for my dogs and I no longer recommend them to my clients either.
Dog food can’t treat bad teeth, but it can help prevent it.
If your dog has tooth pain, soft food might help him eat more comfortably. Don’t fall for the myth that dogs with bad teeth will get better if they eat hard food. They won’t. The only effective treatment for established dental disease in dogs is a professional dental cleaning by a veterinarian.
Once your dog’s teeth are cleaned, you should take steps to keep them from getting bad again. The foods discussed in this article along with daily brushing, water additives and chewing on approved devices can go a long way toward keeping your dog’s teeth clean longer.
- Allan, R. M., Adams, V. J., & Johnston, N. W. (2019). Prospective randomised blinded clinical trial assessing effectiveness of three dental plaque control methods in dogs. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 60(4), 212-217.
- Hale, F. (2005, October). Focus On:”Micro-Dogs.” Hale Veterinary Clinic. http://www.toothvet.ca/PDFfiles/microdogs.pdf, accessed August 31, 2021.
- Hale, F. (2005, October). Focus On: ”Results of the Clinical Trials.” Hale Veterinary Clinic. http://www.toothvet.ca/HM/hmPDFfiles/results.pdf, accessed August 31, 2021.
- Harvey, C. E., Shofer, F. S., & Laster, L. (1996). Correlation of diet, other chewing activities and periodontal disease in North American client-owned dogs. Journal of veterinary dentistry, 13(3), 101-105.
- Hennet, P., Servet, E., & Venet, C. (2006). Effectiveness of an oral hygiene chew to reduce dental deposits in small breed dogs. Journal of veterinary dentistry, 23(1), 6-12.
- Watson, A. D. J. (1994). Diet and periodontal disease in dogs and cats. Australian Veterinary Journal, 71(10), 313-318.
Last update on 2021-10-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API