An important note before we begin: even religious use of the best products will still not prevent some plaque and calculus buildup. Furthermore, what is already on your pet's teeth will not come off without a dental cleaning. Groomers of the world are about to hate me, but the teeth brushing they offer your pets every 6 weeks with their bath is about as effective as it would be for our breath if you or I went that long without brushing. Is it better than nothing? I suppose. But it's a drop in the bucket. To be effective, dental care needs to happen every day. A consistent home care routine will help prevent progression and delay the frequency that your pet will need a cleaning.
That said, let's talk about finding safe and effective products. Just because a product has a "dental" claim on the bag doesn't mean that it is guaranteed to help your pet's teeth- be wary of marketing gimmicks! Many of the products on the shelf, particularly in the chew and treat department, are likely to be of benefit. But technically, anything you get your dog to chew on at all will stimulate saliva, which will help break down plaque. So in theory, I can call the leg of your antique dining room table a "dental treat" if your dog has taken a few minutes to scrape their chompers into it.
One great guideline is to look for products labeled with the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval. The VOHC gives their mark of acceptance when products have been tested and proven effective against plaque and/or tartar. You can check out the complete list here: http://www.vohc.org/accepted_products.htm.
If you find a product that's not on the list- that doesn't necessarily mean that it's not effective or safe. Testing and protocols can be costly for some companies, and some may not feel the VOHC seal is necessary. So if you are considering a product not on the list, do some research on the ingredient list, company, and manufacturing location-- or ask your veterinarian! Better yet, read on for some specific product recommendations!
Most dogs enjoy some sort of rawhide- like chew. Most owners (myself included) prefer the kind that a) my dogs can't completely ingest in 30 seconds or less, b) don't leave a mess on my floor and c) don't cause my dog to have diarrhea.
That said, my personal favorites are the C.E.T. Dental Chew products. These come in a variety of sizes you can match up to your pooch's size. They take even the strongest chewers at least a few minutes to eat (my pooch Maple works at one for about 20-30 minutes). My dogs get one every day, and at less than 60 cents per treat, I think it's a bargain compared to Greenies (which I do think are also an excellent although more pricey product). For added oomph you can upgrade to the CET Hextra chews, which are coated in chlorhexidine, an antiseptic that provides 24 hours of antimicrobial action. My dogs seem to like these even better, but I'll warn you the coating can stain some lighter carpets (like my favorite off-white throw rug; I know, I know- why do I even have one of those, right?!?). And finally, the CET VeggieDent is a perfect option for those pets with sensitive stomachs or food allergies, as they are entirely vegetable based! These make Greenies seem like mushy French fries, so they're a great challenge for those strong chewers!
These products, namely Hill's Prescription Diet T/D (for Teeth/Tooth Diet) and Purina DH (Dental Health), are outstanding products for daily dental health. The individual pieces, or kibbles, are specially formulated to encourage more chewing and abrasive/brushing like action of the food against the surface of the tooth. They are clinically proven to reduce plaque and bacteria- which is an impressive feat. These pieces are quite a bit bigger than regular kibble, and have a unique fiber-like matrix. Even my smallest pooch Maple at 40lbs needs the T/D Small Bites. The regular sized bites are actually almost as big as a charcoal briquette! Now here's the bad news....they're a prescription diet. Prescription diets come at a higher cost, and not everyone can do that. Effective? Yes. Pricey? A little bit.
My solution? Feed these diets as treats! I started this on the recommendation of a colleague a few years ago, and my dogs love it! We've replaced Milkbones or any other treats, and keep a jar of these by the back door. They get a few pieces a day when they come in from going outside, and I can tell it has helped!
I buy a 5 lb bag of the T/D and break it up into a few gallon-sized zip lock bags after I've filled the treat jar. The bags go into the freezer, and 5 lbs will last my dog between 3-4 months! If you hit up the Hill's website for a coupon, you'll be able to knock the cost down to just a few cents more than regular your standard Milkbones, which is well worth it in my book!
Don't worry, feline friends! We haven't forgotten you! While most owners don't think about giving their cats dental chews or treats, they need it just as much- if not more! Since they're not panting in our face as often, it's hard to notice visible tartar, gingivitis or bad breath on kitties. Bacteria and plaque buildup is just as dangerous for a cat's entire organ system as it is for a dog. The good news is that the principles of dental care are the same- brushing if they'll tolerate it, dry food for mechanical removal of plaque, and dental treats and chews!
So what do I give my own cats? They eat a dry food only diet, and they get Feline Greenies treats every day. My cats both love the treats and they definitely have to get their crunch on to eat them. They come in a variety of flavors for the picky eaters, and are reasonably priced and available at most pet stores.
As we talked about last week, there are LOTS of other products out there- toothbrushes and toothpastes, dental rinses, gels, cleaning pads and water additives to name a few. But again, I'm a realist- I know you're busy, and I know your pets hate you for trying to brush their teeth . Dental chews and dental treats are a win-win, so make a resolution to try one and start providing your pet with some daily dental care!
-CD, with special contributions from Maple, Hurricane & Oscar