Evidence-Based Guide to Dental Treats for Dogs
There is a wide variety of dog treats and many reasons why we give to our good boys and girls. One reason is that treats can serve as “functional foods” which provides health benefits beyond nutrition. For example, for humans, oatmeal is a functional food that contains soluble fiber that can help to lower cholesterol levels. One type of functional dog treat is a dental treat. Pet owners often buy these treats to help clean and maintain dental health. A recent survey of dog owners showed that 83% regularly used treats, and that biscuits and dental chews were among the most common.1 Our guide walks you through why dental care is so important for dogs, how treats can play a part in dental hygiene, the types of dental treats available, what to buy and what to avoid.
Why is Dog Dental Health So Important?
Poorly maintained teeth and gums can cause a variety of issues for our canine friends. Many dog owners believe bad breath to be the norm for dogs, but actually it may be a sign of bigger dental issues such as periodontal disease.2 Periodontal disease, an infection of the gums and teeth, is one of the most commonly occurring clinical conditions in dogs, and foul breath is among the first signs.3,4 While the risk of periodontal disease for dogs does increase with age, many dogs show signs by the time they are just 3 years old.3,4 Periodontal disease stems from the accumulation of plaque and tartar (calculus) which leads to inflammation and gingivitis (inflamed gums).3 20% of dogs of all ages were found to have tartar accumulation and/or gingivitis.5 Regular tooth brushing, a minimum of 3 times per week, has been shown to be the most effective method of maintaining good oral health and preventing periodontal disease in canines.3,5 However, many pet owners have trouble committing to this regimen, and this is where dental chews have stepped in. In general, the feeding of hard, as opposed to soft chews, has been linked to a reduced risk of dental issues.3,6 Harder foods, if a large enough size, and chews that increase tooth contact and chewing time, have been shown to be effective at removing plaque and cleaning teeth via abrasive action.5,7 However, there is no evidence to suggest that kibble prevents dental disease.
Dental Dog Treat Options
These specialty treats by no means replace the importance of regular cleanings and oral care for dogs, however, they are easy to use and convenient. Your dog will more than likely appreciate these a lot more than having a toothbrush stuck into their mouths.
Specialty Dental Chews
Designed to be soft enough they don’t hurt teeth but hard enough they help clean them, these speciality chews are specifically designed to be functional, palatable, playful, and easy to digest. Multiple studies have demonstrated that dogs fed a daily dental chew show significantly reduced plaque, tartar, and gingivitis.3,8 They’ve even shown dental chews can help reduce bad breath.9 Additionally, several studies have confirmed that the dental hygiene benefit of these chews is due to their abrasive mechanical action, showing that the addition of antimicrobial agents, such as chlorhexidine, have not further improved dental health.3,7 Nonetheless, products are still marketed with antimicrobials, along with calcium chelators (binders), which are designed to inhibit the formation of tartar.5 You’ll also see other health targeted additives, like vitamins, or perhaps mint, dill, parsley, or fennel to help promote fresh breath.10
Bully Sticks & Jerky
Bully sticks are easy to digest, don’t splinter, and usually made of solely high protein beef muscle. These treats are highly palatable and can support dental health via mechanical action of scraping plaque.11 Likewise, jerky is a rougher chew that can help to clean your dog’s teeth, just be sure to get high-quality dog jerky with no additives.
While rawhides are generally not the first product to be recommended due to the digestibility issues some dogs experience, and potential choking hazard, they have been shown to benefit dental health.12 One study showed that feeding of a soft fibrous rawhide daily significantly reduced plaque, tartar, and gingivitis in dogs.13 A further study indicated that feeding up to 3 rawhide strips per day for 3 weeks straight, showed no issues, and was an effective method of cleaning plaque and tartar from dog’s teeth.6 The collagenous fiber matrices of rawhides aid in a more efficient cleaning of the tooth.5 Rawhides, and similarly pigs ears, don’t work for every dog, but some dogs tolerate them well, just be sure to supervise them chewing it. When feeding rawhide, be mindful that they are an animal part and as such can contain high calories. It’s also important to find a trusted source for your rawhide treats, as recent batches of rawhides have been found to be contaminated with Salmonella bacteria.
Biscuits, being a harder treat, have the mechanical benefit of increased tooth contact which can help with cleaning. The chewing of cereal biscuits has been shown to help remove dental tartar from the teeth of dogs.6 The size and shape of the treat can be manufactured to further promote tooth contact and increased chewing time, to help scrape plaque from teeth.5
The use of bones is highly controversial. While it has been shown that chewing on raw beef bones has reduced the accumulation of tartar in dogs, there are downsides such as digestibility, splintering, and fracturing teeth. If fed, the bone should be raw and never cooked. Look for ‘spongy’ or non-weight bearing bones such as joints, ribs, and vertebrae as opposed to ‘compact’ bones or weight-bearing bones which are very hard such as marrow and leg as they can lead to tooth fractures.14
Crispy Fruits and Vegetables
Apples are a nutritious snack that can be shared with your pup. Due to the increased chewing required for this snack, they may have the added benefit of helping to clean your dog’s teeth.15 Carrots, celery, and other vegetables can make great teeth cleaning healthy snacks too.16
Dog Dental Treat Quality Regulations
Under the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), dental products can boast the abrasive action of a product for teeth cleaning, but cannot make claims about its ability to treat dental diseases.5 The US Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA-CVM) has further asserted that products wishing to claim benefits beyond mechanical action must register their product as a drug and receive FDA-CVM approval for sale.5 Finally, the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) offers a compiled list of approved products, which have received their Seal of Acceptance, indicating scientific evidence from clinical trials back the product’s claim of plaque and tartar removal.5,17 Overall, when selecting a product keep in mind source, quality, calorie content, and remember these products are supplemental and that regular dental cleanings are still important.
- Morelli, G. et al. A Survey of Dog Owners’ Attitudes toward Treats. J. Appl. Anim. Welf. Sci. 1–9 (2019).
- Jerry Klein, C. V. O. Dog Dental Care: Is It Worth It? American Kennel Club (2019). Available at: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/vets-corner/dental-care-dog/. (Accessed: 2nd October 2019)
- Brown, W. Y. & McGenity, P. Effective periodontal disease control using dental hygiene chews. J. Vet. Dent. 22, 16–19 (2005).
- Finlay, K. 5 Tips for Keeping Your Dog’s Teeth Clean. American Kennel Club (2016). Available at: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/5-tips-for-keeping-your-dogs-teeth-clean1/. (Accessed: 2nd October 2019)
- Larsen, J. Oral products and dental disease. Compend. Contin. Educ. Vet. 32, E4 (2010).
- Lage, A., Lausen, N., Tracy, R. & Allred, E. Effect of chewing rawhide and cereal biscuit on removal of dental calculus in dogs. J. Am. Vet. Med. Assoc. 197, 213–219 (1990).
- Rawlings, J. M., Gorrel, C. & Markwell, P. J. Effect on canine oral health of adding chlorhexidine to a dental hygiene chew. J. Vet. Dent. 15, 129–134 (1998).
- Quest, B. W. Oral health benefits of a daily dental chew in dogs. J. Vet. Dent. 30, 84–87 (2013).
- Clarke, D. E., Kelman, M. & Perkins, N. Effectiveness of a vegetable dental chew on periodontal disease parameters in toy breed dogs. J. Vet. Dent. 28, 230–235 (2011).
- Suzi Beber, H. C. Food for your dog’s teeth and gums | Animal Wellness Magazine. Animal Wellness Magazine (2014). Available at: https://animalwellnessmagazine.com/food-for-healthy-gums-teeth-in-dogs/. (Accessed: 3rd October 2019)
- Content, S. Why Bully Sticks Are Great Dog Treats. American Kennel Club (2016). Available at: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/nutrition/why-bully-sticks-are-a-great-treat-for-dogs/. (Accessed: 30th September 2019)
- Stregowski, J. What Treats are Right for Your Dog? The Spruce Pets (2019). Available at: https://www.thesprucepets.com/dog-treat-varieties-1118462. (Accessed: 30th September 2019)
- Stookey, G. K. Soft rawhide reduces calculus formation in dogs. J. Vet. Dent. 26, 82–85 (2009).
- Marx, F. R. et al. Raw beef bones as chewing items to reduce dental calculus in Beagle dogs. Aust. Vet. J. 94, 18–23 (2016).
- Donovan, L. Can Dogs Eat Apples? American Kennel Club (2016). Available at: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/nutrition/can-dogs-eat-apples/. (Accessed: 30th September 2019)
- 6 Foods That Clean Your Pet’s Teeth Naturally | EatLoco. EatLoco (2017). Available at: https://eatloco.org/6-foods-clean-pets-teeth-naturally/. (Accessed: 7th October 2019)
- Veterinary Oral Health Council Accepted Products for Dogs. Available at: http://www.vohc.org/accepted_products_dogs.html. (Accessed: 5th October 2019)