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4 ways to help maintain your dogs healthy gums and teeth

February is not just about valentines and candy hearts.  Another reason to love February is that it is National Pet Dental Awareness month.

Dental health is a very important topic and can often be overlooked for our pets.  When was the last time a visit to your trusted vet included an exam of your pet’s mouth?  This exam should occur each and every time you visit the vet.  At a minimum, as part of a yearly wellness exam.  More importantly your pets dental care should be part of a daily routine at home including examining the mouth, brushing, and providing safe chews.

What beautiful teeth you have!

That new puppy you brought home will have 28 beautiful, white, sharp puppy teeth.  By the age of 4 months old, your pup will have lost almost all of those deciduous teeth and many of those permanent teeth have started to surface.  At full maturity an adult dog, on average,  will have a total of 42 permanent teeth.  Those 42 teeth are comprised of incisors, canine teeth, premolars, and molars.

4 total canine teeth or fangs for grabbing and puncturing
12 total incisors for nibbling
16 total premolars for tearing
10 total molars for crushing

All these beautiful teeth are used more than for just eating their daily meals and occasionally chewing on your favorite pair of shoes.   They also used for grooming, play, and if necessary defense.   It is easy to understand that in order to ensure our dogs live a long healthy life,  we need to identify potential symptoms of dental problems early before they get too progressive and permanently affect your dog’s health.

Symptoms of dental problems.

Dental issues can present themselves in many different ways.  Misaligned bites including under or overbites.  Other obvious symptoms include discolored or tartar covered teeth, broken or missing teeth, and bleeding of the gums.  But other symptoms might not be as noticeable at first including bad breath, drooling dropping food, and reduced appetite.  If any or all of these occur please consult with your veterinarian professional for an exam (bonus points if they specialize in dental health).

Periodontal disease:  Plaque and Tartar

canine tooth with a tartar
canine tooth with a tartar

Veterinarians report that a staggering 85 percent of dogs over age of four are suffering from some degree of periodontal disease.  Starting with plaque, it is a colony of bacteria, mixed with saliva, and blood cells.  Left untreated or uncleaned, dental tartar can appear as calculus when the plaque becomes mineralized (hard) and firmly adhere to the tooth enamel eroding the gingival tissue.  Furthermore, tartar above the gumline can often easily be seen and removed.   Plaque and tartar below the gum line are more damaging and sets the stage for infection and possibly irreversible damage to the jawbone and the tissues that connect the tooth to the jaw bone.  Left untreated, bacteria can enter the bloodstream and affect your dog’s organs including heart, kidneys or liver.

My dogs’ dental health status


Our boy AJ, the Chinese Crested,  is now 12 years old.  He is no everyday run of the mill Chinese Crested but rather he is referred to as a hairy-hairless or Neat.  He has human type hair on the majority of his body but his “undercarriage” is completely hairless.  A genetic mutation is responsible for his hairlessness.  One internet source I was able to find,  lists the gene responsible for this hairless trait identified as FOXI3.  Click the link to learn more.  The exact function of gene FOXI3 is not yet completely understood.  But what is known is that the protein encoded by this mutation activates the development of hair and teeth.  So if the hairless genes are expressed then typically dental imperfections develop as well.   

AJ’s dental issues were identified when he was just a wee pup and some teeth were extracted to help keep his mouth as healthy as possible.  He has misaligned and missing teeth due to his genetic expression.  His dental malformations do sometimes challenge him when eating, drinking and playing.   We help him by forming his meals into bite-sized chunks so he can consume them easier.  We also choose treats for him that are appropriate for his jaw size and dental issues including Ziwi Peaks and Vital Essential Mini Nibs.  Don’t you dare count him out on bone chewing!  He loves his recreational bone chewing time and it is great for this jaw strength and teeth.  He pulls and tears at the connective tissue remaining on the bones  And he nibbles and grinds out the inner bone marrow until he is exhausted.


Chase’s dental history has been mostly boring and uneventful.  It wasn’t but a few weeks after we brought him home that bam, all these puppy teeth were littered all over our house.  I had not raised a puppy for many years and I’ll admit it was shocking how they all were shed in such a short time.  I tried to gather and keep as many as I could find.  He developed a beautiful white full mouth of wonderful nicely aligned teeth.

Until one day he was chewing on one of the moose antler sheds we have around the house and I heard him whimper.  I remember that day clearly.  But I made the mistake of not immediately checking his mouth.  If I would have, I would have noticed right away that he injured one of his molars.  I later found the injured tooth with a buildup of calculus and made an appointment with the vet.  It was determined he has what is called a slab fracture.  A slab fracture occurs when a dog bites down on something hard at just the right angle and just the right amount of force that it breaks a flake or slab off the lateral surface of the tooth.  Luckily we will not need to extract the tooth at this time and will need to monitor that tooth’s health very closely.

Here are 4 ways you can help support your dog’s dental health

As pet parents, we definitely have a large role in helping keep our dog’s mouth healthy.  My road to supporting better dental health for my dogs include the following:

  1. Simply begin a daily routine of home examinations.
  2. Start to acclimate my dogs to accept brushing or some other home cleaning method.
  3. Provide safe toys and chews that will benefit dental health.  While removing or managing their access to potentially damaging chews.
  4. Feed whole fresh foods

Examing the mouth daily

Examining the mouth shouldn’t take a lot of time to get your dog used to.  Here are some pointers to get started.

Pick a time when your dog is already in a calm state of mind.  After a rough game of tug of war is NOT the best time to start.  Be calm, move slowly, and separate the lips with gentle force on each side of the jaw.  Praise and reward.

Next, you’ll want to get them used to also exam the front teeth.  This might feel more weird to them so again, be calm, move slowly, and use light pressure to separate the front lips.  Reward even the smallest progress in cooperation.


Once you can exam the teeth easily, that would be a good time to start acclimating them to brushing.  There are a lot of products on the market for pets to choose from.  Our first toothbrush is a small bamboo handled brush from Mercola.  There are also rubbery brushes that can fit over your finger.  AJ has such a small mouth so I thought trying a smaller head brush might be easier and more effective.

Please do not use toothpaste made for human use.  They contain foaming agents and other chemicals that will be harmful or kill your pet.  Personally, we are going to a wild strawberry tincture (Fragaria vesca) from Hawaii Pharm.  You can read more about this product here.  You should know if you’ve been around the blog for a while that Nina and I prefer to avoid synthetic chemicals and when possible we prefer plant-based, herbal or homeopathic options.

Here are some products that can be used along with brushing

ProDen Plaque Off

Dr. Morgan’s Dental Drops

Mercola Dental Gel

Provide Safe Chews

“Safety” is key for chews.

Below is a short list of our favorite chews we provide to our dogs to help with dental health.

  • raw meaty bones:  chicken wing, necks, feet, and duck heads.
  • raw recreational bones like knuckle bones and cow femur bones
  • tripe stuffed trachea
  • tripe stuffed cow hooves
  • antler sheds
  • dehydrated bully sticks or pizzles
  • some toys like kongs that promote chewing

Always err on the size of too big for any chew or toy.  .  Especially for recreational bones!  This will reduce the risk of choking.

Your dog should be 100% supervised when chewing.   Again this is to ensure no large pieces of bone are broken off that could cause choking or obstructions.  The likelihood of this is minimal if the correct bones are chosen and you follow the “too big” recommendation.

Know what type of chewer your dog is and keep a timer.  Is your dog a leisure or recreational chewer?  Or do they scarf and chew aggressively?  Set a timer depending on what type of chewer your dog is.  Specifically for bones, the whole point of recreational chewing is not to consume the bone but to enjoying chewing, pulling, and tearing the goodies off and at the same time cleaning the teeth and exercising the jaw.  Both Chase and AJ are very leisure chewers so I set a timer for a max time of one hour.  For an aggressive chewer, I would recommend no more than 10-15 minutes.

Lastly, it is a good idea to understand the density of the bone or chew you are providing.  Weight-bearing bones of the leg (also referred to as marrow bones) are very dense.  A knuckle bone is part of the joint of the leg and is slightly less dense and some consumption will occur.  Also, a good example is antlers.  Not all antlers are the same density.  In order from least to greatest density are:  deer, elk, and moose antlers.

In conclusion, chewing not only provides dental care but also provides “feel good” emotions and exercise of the jaw

Feed fresh whole foods

Don’t be pet fooled.  There is a misconception that the crunchiness of feeding kibble actually acts to clean your dog’s teeth.

First, most dogs don’t even chew much of the kibble that they eat.  Even if they did chew the kibble this rationale is like saying that I could keep my teeth clean by eating crunchy Doritos.  Not that sounds silly doesn’t it?

Second, kibble recipes are high in starch and sugar.  Combined with your dog’s saliva,  these starches and sugar sticks to the teeth and are a smorgasbord for bacteria on the tooth.

Feed meals of fresh whole foods, that could include raw meat, organ, and bone,   would be the best to support your dog’s dental health (in fact whole health).   But if you aren’t ready to make that progression yet away from a kibble diet, adding raw meaty bones to their meals would be a great first step.  See some example listed above.

If you are ready to jump right into raw, whole food feeding check out a Facebook Group called “Fresh Food Feeding for Dogs”.  They have a lot of fantastic information in their files.  I love the positiveness of the group and kibble feeders are absolutely welcome to join and learn.

Dogs Naturally Magazine also has an online event called Raw Round Up ( this runs April 5 – 7th this year)  where you can learn tons about raw whole food feeding from veterinarians and experts in nutrition.  Don’t worry, it is a yearly event if you miss it this year.

We all started somewhere and when we know more….we do more.