Dog Chewing Rawhide

If there’s anything that galls my clients, it’s being told they could have prevented a painful and expensive condition — if only they’d been told to stay away from A, B or C hazard. Such is the case when it comes to the use of common chews and devices designed for dental cleaning or as an outlet for natural chewing behaviors in dogs.

Yet when I inform my dog-owning clients that certain “dental health” products can lead to serious problems, many can’t easily accept the notion that dental fractures, gastrointestinal obstruction and gastroenteritis (among other problems) are possible outcomes. After all, they say, how could anything sold expressly to help improve our pets’ dental health and behavior so adversely affect them?

The Truth Behind the Marketing Hype

Yet it’s true. Some of the most commonly marketed “oral health improvement” items are considered unsafe, unwholesome and/or downright unhelpful by board-certified veterinary dentists (and plenty of run-of-the-mill vets like me, too).

But here’s the thing: While many dogs won’t experience safety issues with the goods veterinary dentists suggest you should eschew, as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Which is why I say you should steer clear of the following six “dental health” products:

1. Rawhides. I used to have a Boxer who would swallow these whole, only to turn blue in the process of regurgitating them. Now, you might well ask why I’d give her the second rawhide after watching her do such a thing, but in my defense, I was trying to see whether different sizes might actually get chewed properly. No such luck. To my credit, I always watched carefully just in case a tracheotomy might be in order.

Honestly, though, some dogs tolerate these just fine. And they can be good for the teeth once they become soft and yielding. Just be sure that a) he actually chews it (otherwise, it’s not only useless but also a potential gastrointestinal obstruction), b) you know how many calories you’re offering when you give him that ginormous one you hope will keep him busy all day, and c) you never leave him unsupervised with it.

2. Dried Pig Ears. Now, these aren’t strictly off limits. As with rawhides, however, they can be swallowed whole by some dogs. And these fatty morsels do have far more calories than you’d expect. Moreover, some fat-sensitive dogs can be prodded into pancreatitis by consuming one. Overall, it’s perhaps not the best idea.

3. Antlers. I have one patient who not only fractured a tooth, but she also developed a terrible fungal infection at her gumline after eating one. All in all, it was a very strange situation. The good news, however, is that most dogs seem to enjoy these chews, and most do not fracture their teeth while chewing them (much less develop fungal infections). Still, I say you should beware.

4. Cooked Bones. Though there’s a lively debate when it comes to whether it’s safe or not to feed raw, meaty bones, there’s none on the subject of cooked bones. These hard-as-a-rock, splinter-prone bones aren’t good for the teeth or the GI tract.

5. Rocks and 6. Cow Hooves. As with cooked bones and antlers, rocks and cow hooves are generally considered a bad idea for pets. Not only do numbers 3 through 6 increase their risk of a tooth fracture and foreign body ingestion, they also don’t do much to improve their dental health, either.

After all, says Dr. Jan Bellows, board-certified veterinary dentist and owner of Hometown Animal Hospital in Weston, Fla., products that offer hard, unyielding surfaces are unlikely to offer much help against tartar buildup and gum disease. He urges pet owners to “make sure that whatever they use bends and allows teeth to sink in.”

What the Dentists Recommend

But none of this should lead pet owners to assume that all chews and treats are a no-no. Dr. Bellows recommends that pet owners head on over to where the Veterinary Oral Health Council offers a seal of approval to dental products deemed effective against periodontal disease in pets. Still, it’s important to be cautious, he says.

Dr. John Huff, board-certified veterinary dentist at Alameda East Animal Hospital in Denver, Colo., agrees. Here’s what he says when it comes to assessing the safety and efficacy of dental chews and tartar-control products: "Though I have found all the VOHC products to be safe and effective, [VOHC] does not test for safety.”

Moreover, he urges pet owners to keep things in perspective: "’Effective’ is relative. If brushing is a hundred [percent], treats and chews are probably a one." He adds, "The positives on the VOHC-approved dental products are [that] they are better than nothing."

Which, I’m afraid, can’t be said for numbers 1 through 6 above. Proceed to feed any of the above at your pets’ peril. And whatever you do, don’t skip that nightly brushing your veterinarian recommends.

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