Like so many dog owners, I know how important dental health is for my pups. Also, like so many owners, I find no shortage of excuses to neglect their pearly whites.
But that all changed about two years ago after my Dalmatian mix developed what can only be described as “trash breath.” She had always been a healthy dog. And those few times a month when I did get around to brushing her teeth, they looked great! They were white, shiny, and strong.
Even after she developed that horrendous stench, her teeth looked fine. I wasn't sure exactly what the problem was until one of those perfect white teeth fell out. The tooth was white, but the root was completely black.
Horrified, I took her straight to the vet. A four-figure bill and seventeen extracted teeth later, I recommitted myself to my dogs' dental care.
Now two years in, I have pared my dogs' dental routine down to a few simple remedies. And so far, they have worked wonders to save my Dal's remaining teeth and keep my other dog's mouth looking as good as ever.
How to Keep Your Dog's Teeth Healthy Naturally
Periodontal disease affects 70% of dogs. And the damage isn't just limited to their mouths. That nasty bacteria and plaque can spread through their system and damage organs including their heart and kidneys. What's worse is that poor dental health isn't always obvious on the surface. That's why it is so important to create an effective doggy dental health routine before you see signs of trouble.
Despite what so many pet supply companies want you to think, this kind of routine doesn't require investing in a ton of products or filling your dog's mouth with chemicals. In fact, you can reduce your dog's risk of periodontal disease with just three simple, natural tricks.
Brush, Brush, and Brush Again
If you were hoping there was a way to care for your dog's teeth without busting out the toothbrush, I'm here to deliver some bad news.
Your dog's mouth is full of bacteria that feed on protein and leftover food. As they feed, they form a sticky substance called plaque. As this plaque builds up on your dog's teeth, it begins to harden into yellow tartar. Not only is this substance unsightly, but it harbors harmful bacteria that aids in the development of periodontal disease.
To keep plaque from becoming tartar, you have to remove it before it gets too hard. You will need some kind of tool to do this, but what you don't need is some fancy enzymatic, chemical-filled, ten-bucks-a-tube doggy toothpaste.
By scrubbing your dog's teeth once every 48 hours, you will be doing enough to disrupt tartar from forming. You can do this with a wetted toothbrush or even a piece of gauze.
To get the most out of these brushing sessions, make sure you are targeting the gumline. If you feel awkward brushing without toothpaste, you can add a little coconut oil to the brush. Not only does this oil share a similar texture to toothpaste (at about 75 degrees), but it also has natural antibacterial properties. Plus, most dogs really enjoy the taste, which will make the whole process more enjoyable for at least one of you.
Homemade Mouth Rinses
Frequent tooth brushing is a great way to prevent periodontal disease and set your dog up for a lifetime of dental health. But, if your dog already has a mouth full of nasty bacteria, you may need to do a little more.
One product type many owners are drawn to are water additives. While there are some safe, all-natural products out there, there are just as many dangerous ones. In fact, some of these additives that are marketed for dogs actually contain xylitol–a known canine toxin! Instead of wasting your money on a commercial product that will, at best, not work, and at worst, hurt your dog, I recommend making your own mouth rinse.
For my dalmatian mix, who seems predisposed to dental disease, using homemade antibacterial mouthwash has helped keep her few remaining teeth strong and healthy. There are a number of recipes out there that work well, but here are three that I have found success with.
- Salt rinse: ½ tsp salt dissolved in 1 cup hot water
- Baking soda rinse: 1 tsp baking soda dissolved in 1 cup hot water
- Vinegar rinse: 1 tbs apple cider vinegar diluted with 1 cup water
Each of these ingredients works to kill bad bacteria and create an inhospitable environment for future growth. To add some additional antimicrobial power to any one of these rinses, you can add a few drops of peppermint, myrrh, or clove essential oils.
To use the rinse, simply fill a large needleless syringe with a few milliliters of the liquid. Position your dog with their muzzle tilted slightly toward the floor to avoid them inhaling the rinse. Then slowly spray their gumlines from back to front on each side.
You can repeat this after each brushing or a few times a week, depending on your dog's needs.
Tasty Chews and Raw Bones
If you're thinking all this sounds like a lot of work, then you'll love this third technique.
In the wild, wolves and other canines keep their pearly whites in peak condition by putting them to use. After they bring down their prey, they must use their teeth to chew through thick hide and rip chunks of meat away with their razor-like carnassial molars. And when all that's done, they spend a lot of time chewing on thick bones to extract nutritious marrow.
For a wild dog, that's all it takes to remove plaque and prevent tartar. But for most domestic dogs, all we can do is try to replicate as much of that process as possible.
Dental chews were designed with this very idea in mind. They come in various shapes meant to rub against your dog's teeth as they chew, effectively wiping away the plaque and stimulating blood flow to the gumline. Many commercial chews are made with synthetic ingredients or harmful additives. But there are a growing number of natural products that are much safer for your pet.
If you want to avoid the hype and price tag of dental chews, there are a few more options.
Bully sticks, trachea, and various other dried body parts can provide your dog with hours of teeth cleaning fun. Just make sure to look for products that aren't processed (ground down and reshaped with additives) or bleached.
Or you could go all the way and opt for something wolves chew on all the time: raw bones. While cooked bones should never be fed to your dog, raw bones of the appropriate size are a great choice for healthy canines. Marrow bones are packed with nutrients and are very effective at cleaning teeth and even removing rock-hard tartar. Just make sure your dog's teeth are healthy enough for this kind of hard chew as diseased teeth can break easily with enough force.
The Right Diet
Dog food companies make a lot of claims about which type of food is best for your dog's teeth. Kibble producers are especially vocal about how dry diets will improve your dog's dental health. The truth is, neither the average commercial canned food or kibble is likely to have a positive impact on your dog's teeth.
Dog's molars are sharp and pointed, made to rip flesh from bone, not for chewing food like our molars. That is why most dogs tend to gulp their food and swallow it whole. That is the biggest reason the dry food diet dental health connection is a myth. If your dog isn't chewing their kibble, there is no way it can help clean their teeth.
If your dog does happen to take the time to chew while they eat, it's even worse for their dental health than swallowing the kibble whole. While it may seem like biting into kibble would have a similar effect as biting through a dental bone, the makeup of dry food is quite different.
All kibble contains starch and sugar–things that are necessary to hold those little balls together. As your dog chews, these sticky substances cling to teeth and add to the formation of plaque. So while kibble may have some minor positive effect by scraping off a thin layer of tartar, overall, it will only lead to more tartar formation.
The best way to promote dental health through diet is to feed a raw, ancestral type diet that forces your dog to tear and gnaw. Full chicken wings, raw bones, and large chunks of meat all encourage dogs to use their teeth the way they were designed to be used. Which naturally leads to the teeth being scrubbed and scraped as they eat.
If you aren't comfortable with feeding large pieces of raw food, you can still get some benefit from a high quality raw or home-cooked diet that is high in animal protein and fat. While this diet won't have the benefit of mechanical oral cleaning, it will provide quality nutrition to help protect your dog's mouth and body from the inside out.
Stay Consistent and You'll See the Results
You should aim to brush your dog's teeth every day if you have spare time, and they will allow it. If not, using a combination of mouth rinse, frequent chew treats, and a quality diet will still help reduce your dog's odds of getting periodontal disease.
While a dog with “trash breath” probably requires a trip to the vet for more intensive care, a dog with relatively healthy teeth will benefit from a consistent at-home dental routine. And with the above simple and natural remedies, you can easily make it routine that will last a lifetime.
Various. “Veterinary Periodontal Disease.” rvc.ac.uk. eMedia Unit RVC, 2002.
Alexander M. Reiter , DT, DMV, DAVDC, DEVDC. “Periodontal Disease in Small Animals.” merckvetmanual.com.
Zlatko Pavlica, Milan Petelin, et al. “Periodontal Disease Burden and Pathological Changes in Organs of Dogs.” Journal of Veterinary Dentistry. Vol 25, issue 2, 2008.
Sara Seitz worked in the pet industry for over a decade. In addition to being a certified dog trainer, Sara gained experience working as the general manager of a dog daycare and boarding facility, as the creator and manager of a pet sitting company, as a groomer, and as a dog behavior evaluator. She also has a bachelors in animal behavior from CSU. Currently, Sara works as a freelance writer specializing in blog, article and content writing.