Did you know that the way your dog eats can affect the health of both his spine and mouth? Here’s what you need to know – and what you can do about it.

Gingivitis, tartar, loose teeth – and the spine. Most people have no problem grouping the first three together, but where and how does the spine fit into a discussion of the mouth? The truth is, the position in which your dog eats can affect his spinal health as well as other bones and muscles associated with it – and most domestic dogs don’t eat the way nature intended. This can create not only misalignments, but also an acidic pH in the body, which can in turn contribute to oral issues such as gingivitis, tartar and loose teeth.

The mechanics of how dogs eat – wild vs. domestic

It’s important to understand the mechanics of how dogs ingest their food. Getting food into the mouth requires use of the dog’s entire jaw and head. In the wild, a dog has to hunt down his prey; because he uses his whole head to get hold of his food, he loses sight of his prey when he bites down. When he opens his mouth to capture prey, his eyes follow the movement of his mandible (lower jaw), opposite to the movement of his head and maxilla (upper jaw), so he can keep his target in sight.

After the prey has been captured and killed, a dog in the wild will often eat lying down. This way, he can hold his food between his front paws and look up at what is approaching from the front, thereby protecting his food. He can pay more attention to the food because it’s in a safer place where he can more easily defend it.

Domestic dogs eat stationary food out of bowls, with their heads and necks in flexion. They end up looking down at their feet rather than forward. Protecting food becomes more difficult because the dog is unable to see who is approaching from the front. (For this reason, eating in this position may lead to behavior problems.)

While eating, the canine teeth are primarily involved in getting food into the oral cavity, while the incisors are used for gnawing bits from larger objects. Biting down uses more force than opening the mouth, and also involves more than just the mouth, as we will see. The muscles used to open the jaw are smaller than the muscles used to close it. This takes advantage of gravity and responds to the fact that, unlike opening the mouth, closing it has to act against resistance (the food).

How other muscles are involved

When getting hold of their food, predators pull with a downward motion of the head and neck as the jaws close and grasp. The action involves reaching in extension with an open jaw, then closing the jaw and flexing the head and neck. Other grasping muscles in the dog’s body are part of this process – including the toes, claws and leg flexors. In the act of acquiring food, even if the food is scavenged, it must be protected; wild dogs guard their food with a movement of the spine that rounds the body over the top of the prey.

Domestic dogs still mimic this behavior, moreso when they lie down to eat than if they are standing over a bowl. As mentioned earlier, it is more difficult to guard food while standing over a bowl than it is to hold it between the front paws.

Dogs need to crouch over their food and round their bodies when they eat in order to balance the muscular stress of obtaining it. This balances the flexor muscles with the extensor muscles and is a behavior they acquired from their ancestors. When the dog is standing to eat, however, this ancestral behavior is changed. This alone can cause subluxation issues because the dog doesn’t follow the need to balance the flexor muscles with the extensor muscles. When extensors are continually fired, they become fatigued because they cannot eliminate cellular waste products, and re-set. Because of the chronic fatigue in the extensor muscles, the dog’s body is more acidic in pH, which means he will more likely have dental tartar.

How to help your dog

Giving your dog opportunities to eat his food as nature intended can help support both his dental and spinal health.

  • Feeding raw bones helps keep his teeth and gums healthy from a nutritional standpoint, but it also gives the dog the muscle opportunity to lie down and protect his food while eating.
  • Healthy chew toys will also encourage him to lie down while exercising his jaw and mouth.
  • Chiropractic care can also help by correcting any subluxations being caused by the way he’s eating, leading to improved health in both areas. Most of what chiropractic does is to help restore the body to its “wilder” or “freer” state, so that overall mobility is better.

The TMJ and Spinal Health

The movement of teeth within the oral cavity, loosening of teeth in the jaw, cavities, and sources of oral pain all change mouth function. Choking while eating is a symptom of the entire ingestion process, and can be caused by imbalances of the dental arcade, TMJ, tongue muscles and the oral cavity. A decrease in metabolic rate can lie at the root of these changes; a decrease in metabolic function causes an imbalance of metabolites (vitamins and minerals) and their chemical ability to process biological functions. It inhibits mineral deposits to bone (causing osteoporosis) and is expressed as lethargy, weight gain, decreased body temperature, sensitivity to touch, allergies, pain, irritability, fat pads, poor lymphatic drainage and more. All these affect the spine and nervous system.

The temporal mandibular joint (TMJ, jaw joint) has more nerve endings than any other joint in the body. Problems with TMJ movement can lead to changes in movement of the entire body. Inflammation in any of the oral structures, particularly the TMJ, causes a change in sensory input and motor output. Weakness in the muscles on one side of the body can result from inflammation or damage to the TMJ. Since moving the dog’s body requires the movement of every bone, ligament, joint and muscle, a problem in the mouth may cause a problem anywhere in the body. Lack of motion in one area leads to lack of motion in another, which leads to damage in these areas.

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