It’s the age old misconception: we believe our dogs deserve fresh food, but we think that the hard stuff is better at cleaning their teeth (despite everything else we know about kibble to be unhealthy). My favorite comparison, made by DogFoodAdvisor, is that your dentist tells you to throw out the toothbrush, because a daily serving of tortilla chips will be enough to keep your teeth clean. Obviously, that’s crazy. And so is the belief that kibble is cleaning your dog’s teeth.
So, yes, the tortilla chip analogy sounds silly, but it is understandable why we could be led to believe that some sort of scraping action would clean teeth. Luckily, experts in the field know when to step in and correct these misconceptions, and bring some clarity to how we can properly improve our dogs’ dental hygiene.
Why kibble doesn’t clean your dog’s teeth
Think about the shape of your dog’s teeth, and the shape of a piece of kibble. If you observe the process of your dog chewing their kibble, you’ll notice that each piece of kibble shatters when your dog’s pointed teeth bite down, into many tiny bits after the first crunch. These little bits are quickly inhaled and swallowed, leaving no time for any sort of mechanical cleaning.
Even worse, some small bits stick to teeth due to their starchy nature. The carbohydrates that make up a large bulk of kibble stick on the surface of a tooth, eventually metabolizing into sugar, which subsequently feeds bacteria and leads to plaque, tartar, and periodontal disease.
Now, this is a possibility with any kind of food that may stick to your dog’s teeth, but it certainly contradicts any idea that kibble is cleaning your dog’s teeth, when in fact it is adding to bacteria and buildup within the mouth.
For a food to actually be semi-efficient in mechanically cleaning a dog’s teeth, the dog would need to chew for a much longer time, target specific areas (such as back teeth where more serious plaque builds up), and the food would have to be of a completely different texture (such as that of fresh ingredients).
So…how can you clean your dog’s teeth?
The main things we’re talking about here are plaque, tartar, and periodontal disease.
Plaque is a biofilm that coats the surface of your dog’s teeth, and can be easily removed with a toothbrush, before calcification turns it into tartar along and under the gum. Once it becomes tartar, this hardened calculus is very difficult to remove, and often requires a veterinarian to scrape it off while your dog is under anesthesia. Once this tartar accumulates along the gum line or deep under the gums, it will cause your dog’s gums to swell, bleed, and become infected, which is when it officially is classified as periodontal disease.
The goal is to remove plaque or tartar before reaching the phase of periodontal disease, which can cause serious health risks when left untreated (first stages involve receding gums, bone destruction, and loss of teeth, though the bacteria can eventually enter your dog’s bloodstream and infect vital organs such as the heart, liver, and kidneys).
Brushing to remove plaque
If your dog is easy-going and willing to let you, you can actually brush your dog’s teeth daily (or weekly), just as you would your own. You can purchase a baby-soft toothbrush from the drugstore, and buy a special food-flavored canine toothpaste to make it more appealing. This is an important plaque removal and prevention strategy, though you should still make sure your veterinarian looks at your dogs teeth at check-ups, and can let you know when you need a professional cleaning.
If your dog really won’t let you near their mouth, consider plaque-removing treats to assist in between veterinary visits.
Professional cleanings for tartar removal
Because tartar is calcified and becomes rock hard on your dog’s teeth (and is present in sensitive spots at the back and along gums), it’s important to schedule routine tartar removals with a veterinary professional where they can properly remove any and all tartar. Ask your veterinarian how often your dog will need these, and may sure to stay caught up on them.
Maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle
In addition to dealing with the consequences of bacteria in your dog’s mouth, you can also take some preemptive steps to reduce the amount of plaque and tartar that builds up on your dog’s teeth. Veterinarians recommend fresh foods, whether as the main part of your pet’s diet or at least as a supplement to their current food, which will provide plaque-fighting enzymes to support healthier gums and teeth.
If your dog suffers from a chronic health condition, they may seem to collect more tartar on their teeth due to a compromised immune system, less vigorous chewing, or potentially something less noticeable such as changes in saliva quantity, gum health, or the pH of their mouth. Consider necessary supplements to balance things out, and ask your veterinarian about how you can adapt their dental hygiene routine.
Take care of your dog’s teeth like you would any other member of the family: keep them healthy, frequently clean and brush, and don’t expect a hard food like kibble to do the work for you! Kibble won’t clean your dog’s teeth; only you and your veterinarian can. Plus, you can switch to a healthier diet and save yourself the health risks of kibble at the same time.
Want to hear what our veterinary nutritionist Dr. Justin Shmalberg has to say about your dog’s diet and plaque? Watch his video, or learn about the fresh dog food that can help your dog fight harmful dental bacteria on the NomNomNow website.