Toothsome nutrition: On the politics and practicalities of pet food formats for dental health
Should you feed crunchy kibbles or the meaty moist stuff? Does it make any difference whether we're talking large or small breed, dog or cat, male or female, young or old?
When it comes to formulating ideal diets for pets there are lots of moving parts, and the variables involved in getting to the perfect diet for each individual pet are endless. But what's the deal when it comes to teeth?
It's a great question. Because there is no one right answer for every pet.
The conventional wisdom says crunchy food is better for dental health because the chewy friction created by kibbled diets usually means less plaque. And, for the most part, studies do support the positive effect of chewed (i.e., hard, crunchy) foods on dental health.
(N.B.: Yes, raw meaty bone feeders, you win here. Still, you'll have to forgive me for largely ignoring your ilk in this post. You're a tiny, albeit growing, minority that I will not be treating here today.)
But to what extent does the shape, size and texture of the foodstuff matter when it comes to chewing (and therefore, to plaque reduction)? Are all crunchy foods created equal?
Actually, some crunchy foods do almost nothing for dental health, while others have passed rigorous standards showing they do reduce plaque (check out VOHC.org for more info on this).
And, finally, there's this to consider: Individual chewing behavior. Is every kibble being chewed? Or are those lumps often simply swallowed? (Some pets do just gulp, you know, bypassing mastication altogether.) After all, if your pet is a non-chewer, there's no way that even foods deemed most effective for preventing tartar formation will do a thing for your gulper's teeth.
Luckily, all these issues are under serious scrutiny by pet food companies the world around. My visit, two weeks ago today, to the Waltham Centre for Nutrition Research in England proved that much, if nothing else.
Turns out that all the teensy particulars relevant to plaque reduction are on the table when it comes to nutrition research — which only makes sense. After all, we now know that pet longevity is highly correlated with oral health, even after correcting for issues like owner income and willingness to seek veterinary care.
So it is that teeth deserve far more attention than most owners know. This is why pet food companies increasingly feel a strong sense of responsibility for ensuring that dental health is optimized via pet food formulas.
And that makes sense. But here's what the cynic in me always has to ask: To what extent is the average crunchy kibble diet better than the canned or home-cooked (or raw, for that matter) diet?
Now let's go one further: Assuming the diet has been scientifically proven to reduce plaque, is the scientific term, "significant plaque reduction" something that actually translates into clinically relevant improvement in dental health?
In other words, we surmise that reducing plaque is helpful, but how helpful is something else entirely. Long-term studies on oral health will have to be undertaken before we'll know. And so far I've heard of no studies that address this question: Do dogs and cats fed a lifetime of crunchy, proven plaque-reducers suffer less periodontal disease than those that are not? (If I've overlooked any studies addressing this issue over the long haul, please let me know.)
You may think it's irrelevant or trivial, all this speculation, but I assure you it's not. For example, many of my patients whose medical conditions require moistened foods (overweight cats, cats and dogs with specific urinary issues) come attached to owners who fear wet foods for their dental health deficiencies (though the cost, "mess," and environmental concerns are other oft-cited issues). Long conversations are often necessary to explain cost/benefit issues here.
And there's this to consider: Given that we often don't yet know what's best for our own human nutritional needs, and the increasingly important role of water in cat foods in particular, I'll admit I'm given to some hand-wringing on the subject. But, truth be told, I've got issues with both wet and dry feeding formats.
After all, the latest guidelines on human feeding suggest fresh is best. And neither moist and meaty nor dry and crunchy has managed to address this concern in the least.
Dr. Patty Khuly
P.S. – FYI, February is pet dental health month. (There's a month for everything, you know?)