Natural care for your dog's teeth

By following these suggestions, you can help ensure that your companion enjoys the many benefits of healthy teeth and gums and that his breath stays fresh and sweet.

Libby the miniature schnauzer loves to ride in cars. She often sits on the console between the front seats, where she can see everything. It’s also the perfect position from which to place a slobbery kiss on the nearest human cheek. This usually doesn’t bother her people, but lately her breath has been foul. In fact it smells rotten – something like rancid meat combined with sour milk.

Libby has halitosis, bad breath usually caused by plaque, a buildup of anaerobic bacteria on the teeth and gum tissues. If left unchecked, the plaque will become mineralized, forming hard tartar that serves as a breeding ground for even more bacteria. Eventually, Libby’s gums may become infected, causing gingivitis. Even worse, she may develop an infection in one or more tooth sockets (periodontitis). If left untreated, the infection could spread to her kidneys, heart valves, or other vital organs.

Libby’s problem is not uncommon. In fact, it is widespread. According to the American Veterinary Dental Society (AVDS), 80% of dogs and 70% of cats develop some form of periodontal disease by age three. These are astounding figures, especially when we consider that most dogs and cats in North America eat kibble – food that, according to most manufacturers, is designed to clean teeth and promote healthy gums. So why does the AVDS insist we have our animals’ teeth cleaned at least once a year?

The answer might come to mind if you look at a picture of wild carnivores eating a carcass – snarling, flesh and bone-gobbling wolves, coyotes, and wild cats with sharp, white, perfect teeth and healthy pink gums. These animals do not eat kibble, nor do they have their teeth cleaned. Obviously, they eat foods that support dental health.

Diet is key to dental health

From a conventional point of view, dental hygiene is maintained in animals much as it is in humans – by cleaning the teeth and eating the right foods. This is good advice, but taking the wild carnivore scenario into consideration, we are faced with two important questions: what are the “right” foods for maintaining periodontal health in domestic dogs and cats? And, short of providing a completely raw diet, what can we do to naturally reduce the odds of our pets developing periodontal disease? The answer comes when we put periodontal health into a holistic, “bigger picture” perspective.

Many holistic veterinarians agree that effective prevention does not begin with the feeding of hard kibble and routine cleanings, but with honoring the natural means by which an animal’s body maintains itself, and by giving it what it needs.

Dr. Bob Ness, DVM, a holistic practitioner at Ness Exotic Wellness Center in Lisle, Illinois, explains: “If natural measures of prevention were truly in place, brushing probably wouldn’t be necessary. A big part of the picture is related to eating kibble, especially those full of sugars, preservatives, and artificial ingredients. I suspect that these foods change balances of healthy bacterial flora in ways that allow harmful bacteria to multiply and tartar to form.”

Dr. Ness adds that bad ingredients aren’t the only culprits. The texture, density, digestibility and physical structure of processed foods also contribute to periodontal disease. “When a carnivore eats kibble, it must process food for which its teeth are not naturally designed,” he says. “A carnivore’s mouth is set up to tear meat and grind bones, not crush baked meal with molars.”

Although many kibble foods are quite hard, all break down into soft particles when chewed or dissolved in the mouth. In terms of cleaning and strengthening teeth and gums, none of these foods can replace raw, meaty bones.

Bones provide the calcium necessary for building strong teeth and bones. They also serve as the perfect natural chewing medium for keeping teeth and gums clean and healthy. In addition, unlike heat-prepared commercial foods, raw bones offer the live probiotic bacteria and natural enzymes needed to maintain healthy populations of bacterial flora in the mouth. The oral flora of “good guy” bacteria fight and kill harmful bacteria, such as Streptococci, Actinomyces and other pathogens before they can multiply and cause gingivitis or other infections. A healthy flora also helps break down and remove food particles that remain lodged between the teeth. As well, this beneficial bacteria helps maintain pH (acidity) balances in the mouth, creating a less favorable environment for harmful microbes.

Foods to maintain a healthy oral environment

Regardless of whether you are feeding a raw diet, canned food or kibble, consider feeding your dog a raw bone each week – it will work wonders toward keeping his teeth clean and his oral environment in balance.

Your cat can partake too, provided she has a healthy, normally functioning digestive tract. An occasional chopped raw chicken neck will keep her teeth sparkling; unlike cooked bones, raw chicken necks don’t splinter when chewed, but are instead rendered into porous, more uniform particles that your cat can safely digest.

Raw vegetables and fresh green grass (wheat, barley or otherwise) are also good additions to a feline or canine diet. Fibrous grasses and raw vegetables, like fresh parsley sprigs or unpeeled organic carrots, serve as natural probiotic and enzyme-rich flosses. Green plants and vegetables also provide antioxidant, disease-fighting chlorophyll that helps freshen breath.

It is also wise to add a good digestive enzyme powder and a probiotic supplement (Acidophilus, Bifidus, etc.) to your companion’s diet, as these will greatly help with the maintenance of healthy mouth flora. Several brands are available through pet supply retailers.

The art of brushing

If your companion eats a well-balanced natural diet, he will likely enjoy strong, clean teeth and gums all his life, even without brushing. Occasional brushing is nevertheless a good idea, even if the teeth and gums appear perfectly healthy.

If your pet does not eat raw foods or bones on a regular basis, plan on brushing at least once a month. If her teeth appear yellow and prone to plaque, then you should brush weekly. In either case, it is a good idea to have your veterinarian examine your companion’s teeth at least twice a year.

Brushing the teeth of an unwilling animal can be challenging, but a little patience can transform an otherwise traumatic experience into a happy routine. With the right tools and techniques, dogs and even cats can become pleasantly accustomed to having their teeth cleaned.

Begin by choosing toothpaste made specifically for pets. Find one you think your companion would enjoy eating. My dogs are particularly fond of those flavored with chicken or peanut butter. I also opt for brands that contain probiotic bacteria and/or enzymes, as these will help maintain healthy flora in the mouth. Conversely, I avoid products that contain fluoride, preservatives, or strong antibiotic chemicals, as these ingredients (in my opinion) may interfere with flora and affect an animal’s oral chemistries. Always avoid toothpaste made for humans, as many contain foaming agents that can cause stomach upset in animals.

Once you find toothpaste your companion likes, gradually introduce him to the experience of having his teeth and gums touched and rubbed. Start by placing a small amount of toothpaste on your fingertip and rubbing it on the outer surfaces of his gums and teeth each day. Praise him as you do this, just as you would if you were giving him a cookie for being good. Once he gets used to this (or perhaps even eager for it), you can start brushing.

Although any soft bristle toothbrush will do, consider one specifically designed for dogs. These brushes are specially angled and have a longer reach for use around sharp teeth and long jaws.

Start by brushing the outer surfaces of just one or two teeth per session, concentrating on the upper portions of each tooth and along the gum lines where tartar typically collects. Don’t worry too much about the inner (the tongue side) of your pet’s teeth. These surfaces are well protected by saliva and oral flora, and are much less likely to develop tartar.

After your pet is accustomed to having a couple of teeth brushed each week, start increasing the number of teeth you clean each session. At this stage, you may also be able to employ a dental pick to scrape plaque buildup from the upper surfaces of the teeth.

Do not rush the cleaning process. If you find yourself struggling with your companion, stop and reassure him that the session is over and you are pleased with his performance. The idea is to make him feel comfortable, non-threatened and looking forward to his next cleaning.

Herbs for dental health

A variety of herbal products can help prevent or treat minor cases of gingivitis in dogs and cats. Some are also useful for animals that flatly refuse brushing. Most are liquids that can be sprayed or wiped on the outer gums and tooth surfaces. Virtually all are strongly antibacterial, and are especially useful in circumstances where bad breath, slightly reddened gums, and plaque formation indicate an early stage infection.

Among my favorite herbs for dental care are extracts of myrrh (Molmol sp.), thyme (Thymus spp.) and fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare). All have well documented antibacterial and tartar fighting activities. I also use goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) extract, which helps reduce gum inflammation as it knocks down infection.

In my mind, many of the antibacterial products intended for mixing into drinking water should only be used if there is an infection behind the teeth (in the tongue, inner gums, throat, etc.). Some of the strong antibacterial herbs and other ingredients in these products may not discriminate between good and harmful bacteria and could reduce flora populations needed for a balanced, disease-resistant oral environment.

Remember…successful dental care is all about respecting nature as it is intended to exist in your companion’s mouth.


Greg Tilford is CEO and formulator of Animal Essentials Inc., and an industry consultant and custom formulator for veterinarians worldwide. He is the author of five books, including Herbs for Pets, the Natural Way to Enhance your Pet’s Life. He has taught at veterinary institutions and conferences, including the annual AHVMA conference. Greg serves as honorary advisor to the Japan Animal Wellness Association for international pet care professionals. He is a charter member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the NASC. He founded the Animal Products Committee of the American Herbal Products Association and has served on Health Canada’s Expert Advisory Committee for Veterinary Natural Health Products.