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Support your dog's dental health

There are three ways you can make sure your dog stays dentally healthy: at-home brushing, professional cleaning, and dog food and treats containing sodium hexametaphosphate (HMP). © iStockphoto.com/Ivan Solis There are three ways you can make sure your dog stays dentally healthy: at-home brushing, professional cleaning, and dog food and treats containing sodium hexametaphosphate (HMP). © iStockphoto.com/Ivan Solis
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By Darcy Lockman

Periodontal disease in dogs can contribute to the development of kidney, liver, heart and bone disease, so toothbrushing and regular veterinary cleanings are as important to your dog's health as they are to your own. Good food and habits, however, can also fight tartar and the whole host of dental issues, such as a malodorous mouth, which go along with it. Dr. Katy Nelson, a Virginia-based veterinarian, explains the importance of dental care and its relationship to diet.

Recognizing Dog Dental Health

According to Nelson, healthy dog gums are pink as opposed to red, with no buildup of tartar around the gum line. What's more, a healthy mouth does not produce intolerably stinky breath. "Your dog's vet should always do an oral exam," says Nelson. "In older dogs especially, [teeth] can get abscesses with no easily visible signs. A thorough assessment may require sedation."

Maintaining Dental Health

There are three ways you can make sure your dog stays dentally healthy: at-home brushing, professional cleaning, and dog food and treats containing sodium hexametaphosphate (HMP).

1. Brushing You can make any pooch tolerate the dental health process: Buy a chicken- or beef-flavored toothpaste, or make the brushing sessions standard practice.

"Brush as often as your lifestyle allows -- daily if possible. They get used to it quickly if it's a regular part of their lives," says Nelson. Put your pet on a raised surface, such as a table, hold its jaw firmly in one hand, and brush with the other. Choose a time when your dog is relaxed and stop if your pet gets too agitated.

2. Professional cleaning Not every dog needs its teeth cleaned yearly. With the right genes, some dogs never develop much tartar. But for the rest, regular cleanings, which require anesthesia, are necessary up to twice a year.

"We use an ultrasonic scaler, which makes a high-pitched noise and vibrates really quickly. There's not a dog on the planet who will sit still while its teeth are cleaned this way," explains Nelson.

3. Food Food fights tartar in two ways. The first is mechanical: The simple act of chewing on something crunchy breaks up tartar. The second is chemical: The aforementioned HMP, a food additive, lives in the saliva for up to 12 hours, breaking down tartar and preventing plaque.

To boost the effectiveness of foods with this additive, Nelson suggests serving wet and dry foods separately -- if you normally provide your dog with both types. "The chemical works best when it is activated by saliva, so other types of moisture can water down the process," she explains.

Nelson also says to look for a food or treat with a seal of approval from the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC). "If it's got the seal, it's guaranteed to be a good dental treat or food." Nelson advises you proceed with caution, though, if your dog is overweight. "A lot of dental-specific diets can be high in fat, so make sure whatever diet you choose is designed for the whole dog, and not just its mouth."


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Darcy Lockman is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Rolling Stone. She lives in Brooklyn, with the prettiest pug dog in the five boroughs.

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