Cat eating treat

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.

3. If it’s labeled as a dental treat, it must be effective.

Since we’re already talking about evidence-based methods, let’s mention the fact that the vast majority of dental chews and tartar-control treats have not yet been proven effective in doing what they claim to do.

Thankfully, there is an organization, the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC), that serves to certify the efficacy of dental products through a rigorous set of standards and protocols. (Check out its website to view the certified products, but I caution you — its pictures are not for the squeamish.)

4. Dental treats don’t have a lot of calories.

As a veterinarian who just spent the past year of her life developing an iPhone app to help dogs lose weight, I believe I’m qualified to attest to the fact that the caloric density of some of these treats outstrips that of the average cup or container of food. Which, I’m sure you will all agree, is not a good thing.

Luckily, there are some low-cal options on the market. But the problem remains.

Dental chews and tartar-control treats will continue to be the preferred method among pet owners for dealing with bad breath, heavy tartar and periodontal disease as long as the “food = love” mentality persists. This, in spite of their significant inferiority to other methods (as I mentioned above).

5. Dental treats are safe.

Here’s the final issue: Not all chews and treats are created equal when it comes to their safety profiles. Plenty of them are more likely to leave devastating dental lesions like tooth fractures than manage your pet’s periodontal disease.

But chews and treats are by no means a no-no as an adjunct to any dental health regimen. Dr. Bellows recommends pet owners start with the VOHC-accepted chews, treats and diets that are considered effective and urges pet owners to “make sure that whatever they use bends and allows teeth to sink in.”

Dr. John Huff, board-certified veterinary dentist at Alameda East Animal Hospital in Denver, Colo., sounds a final note of caution 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, the [VOHC] does not test for safety." Moreover, he urges pet owners to understand that "’Effective’ is relative. If brushing is a hundred, treats and chews are probably a one." He adds, "The positives on the VOHC-approved dental products are [that] they are better than nothing."

Though not all veterinarians share the same list of do’s and don’ts — not to mention favorite dental products — it’s always a good policy to ask what your veterinarian recommends for your individual pet and why. And given that February is National Pet Dental Health Month, it seems like a task you’d do best to put on your to-do list today!