Deconstructing (And Sometimes Dissing) Dental Chews and Tartar-Control Treats for Pets

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If there’s one question that most routinely follows the annual or semiannual dental examination, it’s the one about dental chews and treats:

“I know her teeth are rotten, Doc, but I’m scared of the anesthesia. Which dental chews or tartar-control treats do you recommend instead?”

Putting aside the overwhelming preponderance of rewards over risks of anesthesia in the face of severe periodontal disease (a subject that deserves its own post), the topic of dental chews is littered with a minefield of misconceptions. Let me count the ways:

1. Dental chews and tartar-control treats undermine the need for brushing.

Here’s the thing about the common question of dental chews: It tends to advance the assumption that these ubiquitous consumer products are the most obvious approach to tackling tartar, when tooth brushing should by all rights top the list.

After all, you wouldn’t ask your dentist about dental chews, would you? “An apple a day” surely helps, but you’d expect your dentist to underscore the need for better methods of brushing and flossing over any dietary means, right?

Yet our pets’ dental professionals (general practitioners and board-certified veterinary dentists) are often ridiculed for suggesting such "nonsense." (“Yeah, like that’s gonna happen,” some pet owners scoff.) More so when we mention the regularity with which we recommend they wield a toothbrush in their pets’ general direction.

According to board-certified veterinary dentist Dr. Jan Bellows of Hometown Animal Hospital in Weston, Fla., and author of the All Pets Dental website, twice-daily brushing for plaque and tartar control goes a long way to helping dogs and cats keep their teeth healthy. If brushing isn’t doable, he strongly advocates the use of chlorhexidine- or sodium hexametaphosphate-impregnated wipes instead.

Other veterinarians are less exacting. For example, I’m willing to settle for brushing, wiping or any other friction-inducing approach (some veterinarians recommend “brushing” with a gauze sponge) at an absolute minimum of twice a week.

2. Dental chews and tartar-control treats reduce the need for professional cleaning.

The ubiquity of tartar-control treats and dental chews on pet superstore and supermarket shelves offers ample evidence of the pet food industry’s influence on this segment of the market. In business-school terms, I’d say the industry is advancing these products not just as accoutrements to dental health, but also as substitutes for routine professional cleaning, as well as for regular brushing.

Which is not to say the industry is primarily at fault. Nonetheless, it’s clear to me that pet-owning consumers are looking for easier ways to handle the problem of periodontal disease and that Madison Avenue, et al., is offering attractive excuses that serve to effectively undermine the veterinary profession’s evidence-based methods of managing dental disease.

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