Tooth Brushing Can Be Bad

Tooth Brushing Can Be Bad

I should start by saying that providing safe, effective daily home plaque control for your pets is often an important part of pet care and can be very helpful in preventing the development or progression of periodontal disease. However, if not approached properly, it will provide no benefit at all. In fact, brushing your pet’s teeth can be worse than useless. The same can be said for all mechanical home dental care options, be it dental diets, consumable treats or chew toys. I know this may seem like heresy, because so much of the messaging is that if owners would just brush their pet’s teeth, their pet’s oral bliss would be assured. Nothing in life is that simple. So, let’s break it down. For the sake of brevity, I will use the acronym MHPC to refer to any and all forms of Mechanical Home Plaque Control (brushing, diets, chews, toys).

1- Prevention is not treatment. I see many situations in which owners have been instructed to (or decide to) start a home plaque control program AFTER disease has been detected and that is no good. MHPC is intended to prevent gingivitis and the development of periodontal disease. Once there are visible signs of disease, it is too late to prevent it. Now we need to assess and treat it. Then, once the mouth has healed from that treatment, a MHPC program can be put in place to prevent disease from recurring. But you cannot treat established disease with MHPC and any attempt to do so will just waste time and money and allow the disease to progress and become harder to treat.

2- MPHC can cause pain. Dental disease is often painful, or at least tender. The use of MHPC can cause pain by traumatizing those sensitive areas of disease. I have seen animals who were suffering from severe and painful disease that were being fed a dental diet that consisted of large, hard kibbles that would be difficult/dangerous to swallow whole. These animals were faced with the choice of going hungry or chewing through the pain. Neither is a pleasant option for the pet.

3- False sense of security. When owners are able to brush, they generally only get the lip-side of the easy-to-reach teeth. These are the same areas that we can see when doing a visual examination in a conscious patient. So, if the owners are doing a good job of brushing, the areas we can see (which are they areas they are brushing) are going to look good above the surface. However, the areas we cannot see easily on conscious examination are the same areas the owners are not brushing (between teeth, tongue/palatal side of teeth, below the gum line). So, a quick peek in the mouth might reveal nice clean crowns and it is tempting to assume that means all is well and no further investigation is needed. Wrong!

This mini-Schnauzer’s owner was brushing the teeth twice daily and so the crowns are really nice and clean. However, possibly because the crowns looked so good, the dog had never had a proper dental assessment or any professional dental care and so…
…there was horrific and wide-spread periodontal disease (massive bone loss evident on this radiograph) and she required extraction of every tooth. Do not let clean crowns lull you into a false sense of security.

While we all like to see nice, clean crowns, that finding in no way predicts what will be going on below the gum line. So when owners are doing a good job of home plaque control, it is easy fall into a false sense of security and if no deeper investigation is done any pathology lurking below the surface remains undetected, untreated and the animal suffers in silence as the pathology progesses, unchallenged.

4- MHPC is plaque control only. While a safe, effective daily home plaque control program can be very helpful as one tool in managing periodontal disease, it will have no effect on a number of other dental issues such as endodontic disease, tooth resorption, cyst formation and more. MHPC is a one-trick pony. The only thing it does is reduce/slow the accumulation of plague which can reduce/slow the development of gingivitis and periodontal disease. But our pets can get a lot of other dental problems that are in no way prevented with MHPC.

5- Dental treats are calories. While there are some consumable treats/chews that have research to show that they provide at least some benefit, all of them contain calories and they do not tend to be really nutritionally balanced. For a pet struggling with weight issues, consumable treats may not provide enough benefit to justify the extra calories they represent. Visit for a list of diets and consumable chews that have received the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s Seal of Acceptance and always favour products that have a seal for helping to control plaque over those that just have a seal for helping to control tartar.

6- Many ‘chew-toys’ break teeth. Many of the things marketed to pet owners as toys that might benefit oral health are actually very bad for teeth. Whether it is natural or nylon bones, large rawhide toys, antlers, dried bull penises (Bully Sticks), dried cow hooves – all of these things are more than hard enough to cause serious dental fractures. Always remember the Knee-Cap Rule when considering a chew toy for your dog.

I have a video that goes into all of this in some detail and you can find it here –

And for more on home dental care products and strategies, there is this pdf from –

Now, in this post, I have been talking about Mechanical home plaque control. There are also some non-mechanical means of home plaque control such as topical sprays, water additives, food additives and such. While these may not cause pain in the face of disease and will not break teeth, they are subject to the other shortcomings listed above. And, though there is a plethora of products on the market, most have absolutely no valid research to show that they do anything of value. They make unsubstantiated claims and offer false hope. I may post on this subject in more detail in the future.

But, whether mechanical or non-mechanical, home plaque control does NOT treat disease and does NOT replace professional veterinary dental care in any way. At best, they are just tools to aid in the maintenance of good oral hygiene between regular professional care. Heck, I brush my own teeth twice daily, floss daily AND have them examined and professionally cleaned every 6 months.

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