By Victoria Schade
Even though canine teeth are incredibly powerful, they’re still susceptible to fractures, breaks, and in some cases, even cavities. Pet parents might be surprised to discover that some of their dog’s favorite treats — including goodies that are specifically formulated for dogs — can put their dog’s oral health at risk. Learn more about which items can harm your dog’s teeth, and what the signs of tooth injury are, here.
Some pet parents can’t resist sharing their desserts with their dogs. Sweet treats like ice cream, cookies and other sugary human delicacies are a bad idea for dogs from a nutrition and weight standpoint, but sweet foods can also have a negative impact on tooth health as well.
Dr. Chad Lothamer, assistant professor of dentistry and oral surgery at Colorado State University, says that even though dogs aren’t as prone to cavities as humans because of the shape of their teeth (they have fewer flat teeth where bacteria can build up) and the pH in their mouths, it is still possible for dogs who eat an excessive amount of sugar to develop them, particularly on teeth in the rear of the mouth. Instead of sharing sugary snacks with your dog, eat the ice cream yourself and give your pup healthy dog treats with natural ingredients and limited fillers.
It might seem like ice cubes are a great dog treat because they do double duty as a quick chew as well as a way to hydrate. Unfortunately, those hard chunks of ice can do major damage. Even though dogs have powerful mouths, the pressure required to break through a piece of ice is considerable, and a determined ice-chomping dog might end up with a fractured tooth. Dr. Barden Greenfield, DVM and diplomate of the American Veterinary Dental College, says that the sharpest points of a dog’s mandibular first molar and the maxillary fourth molar are particularly at risk for snapping off because of the pressure needed to crush ice. Come hot weather, skip the ice and give your dog a good old fashioned bowl of water instead.
Katie Grzyb, DVM, says that owners should also be cautious about what their dogs chew on outside or at the dog park, as many dogs can break their teeth chewing on rocks.
Dogs have an innate need to exercise their jaws, however many beloved chews like bones, elk antlers and cow hooves can cause serious dental trauma like fractures and breaks. Dr. Mary Buelow, assistant professor of clinical dentistry and oral surgery at University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, says that bones, particularly antlers, have zero “give,” which makes them long lasting but also more likely to be hard enough to cause problems.
Both Greenfield and Buelow’s rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t hit your knee with the bone or chew, it’s probably not a safe bet for your dog’s teeth. But that doesn’t mean that your furry best friend has to remain chew-less – your dog can still exercise his jaws on durable rubber treat-stuffable toys. Dr. Marisa Brunetti, VMD, suggests testing the toy’s flexibility with a fingernail; if it gives slightly to pressure, it’s probably fine for chewing.
Some processed plastic or nylon dental chew bones are marketed to suggest that they improve dental health, but they may in fact cause the same types of problems as antlers and hooves. Many of these chews don’t pass the “knee test,” which means that they’re hard enough to do damage to your dog’s teeth. On top of that, some dental chews might not deliver the tooth cleaning benefits that they promise.
“There are tons of treats that make claims to improve oral health and unfortunately most of these do not provide proof beyond anecdotal claims,” Lothamer says. He suggests using the Veterinary Oral Health Council website as a guide for safe chews and treats, since it gauges product effectiveness based on the scientific method.
Dental problems aren’t always as obvious as a canine tooth snapped in half and, unfortunately, dogs can be very good at masking their pain.
“There often are no warning signs of tooth fracture as dogs are very good at masking signs of dental pain. However, some general signs might be unwillingness to play with or chew on their regular toys, dropping food or chewing on one side of the mouth, decreased levels of activity or energy, reluctance to allow brushing of the teeth,” Buelow says.
Chronic tennis-ball chewers should also be watched, Grzyb said, as constant chewing on tennis balls can wear down the crown of the tooth, exposing the nerve and leading to pain and infection.
Greenfield suggests that pet parents check their dog’s teeth and mouth proactively during regular teeth-cleaning sessions. Staying on top of home cleanings keeps pet parents familiar with the topography of their dog’s mouth, and more likely to pick up on a pain point before it gets out of hand.
To keep dogs in peak dental health, Lothamer says they should be evaluated regularly by their veterinarian to assess the teeth, along with professional cleanings and radiographs done at regular intervals. According to Lothamer, the best way to maintain long term oral health is through daily brushing to remove the plaque that builds up every day before it can mineralize into calculus, which is much more difficult to remove.
Victoria Schade is a certified dog trainer and author.