When I was growing up as 4-H kid showing dogs, we learned to scale the tartar off our dogs’ teeth using a tooth scaler, just like the dentist uses. For decades, I’d do this regularly on my dogs, usually before each show. Each time would render huge flakes of built-up tartar, and the scraping would take ten or twenty minutes to get all of the teeth clean.

Nowadays, “experts” recommend brushing your dog’s teeth daily. Good Heavens! Who has time to do that? Most vets also recommend bringing your dog in periodically for sedation and a full teeth cleaning. If all this were true, it makes you wonder how coyotes and wolves survive in the wild without developing crippling dental disease by age three. I’ll share a little secret I’ve found: none of this stuff is necessary in a  healthy dog!

Diet Magic

I switched to feeding a homemade diet to my dogs around 1999. I was amazed at some of the health changes I saw, even though I always thought my dogs were healthy before. Things that I took for granted as “normal,” such as flea problems, allergies, ear infections, voluminous, smelly poop, and dirty teeth: all those problems disappeared. This observation is confirmed by many. Famous raw-feeding book author Ian Billinghurst noted long ago that he never saw dental problems in his Australian country practice where naturally fed dogs are the norm; and was shocked to see how widespread the problem was in the U.S., where kibble feeding is the norm.

My border collies are passing middle age and have been on a whole-foods diet since they were young pups. At ages seven and eight, I noticed their teeth finally starting to get a little tartar- just on the big back molars and a little on the canine teeth. I have never scaled, brushed nor otherwise had their teeth cleaned up to this point. Here is Maggie’s (age seven) canine tooth with some minor tartar:

And after a quick moment of scaling (notice her lower canine tooth is busted: grr, she has broken a lot of teeth from her lunatic fetching and other nutty border collie behaviors):

Kibble Trouble

My border collies get no kibble, I feed a combination of raw meat, chicken parts including the bone, cooked whole grains and vegetables; and occasionally beef or lamb bones. Our LGDs, on the other hand, eat so much food, I’ve never mastered preparing that much in our kitchen. So I still top off their homemade food with some kibble (I try to use as little as possible). And, lo and behold, they have tartar problems. I doubt anyone knows for sure what causes tartar, and it’s probably a combination of factors.  But I suspect leading contributors are the carbs in kibble and lack of good calcium sources, which create an oral environment that encourages abnormal tartar growth.

Bronte is four years old, and she already had quite a bit of buildup on her molars. I didn’t get a picture because I was sitting on her in order to scale her teeth. Winking smile (Yes, it goes against my earlier post of using operant conditioning to make unpleasant maintenance chores easier. But since I only have to scale her teeth once every several years, there is no point in making a big training exercise around it. What I did to compensate for her being momentarily freaked-out by this brief molestation was to give her a nice massage afterwards until she relaxed and forgot about the dental cleaning.)

Moses’ teeth were looking bad. He came here with tartar already, it has worsened with time, and his gums show inflammation. He has odd-looking, under-developed teeth (to me); I wonder if my raw-fed dogs grew bigger, nicer teeth as pups? Or maybe it’s genetic- there has been some discussion about show-bred dogs seeming to be evolving smaller and smaller teeth. You can even see in the pictures, though Maggie is a third the physical size of Moses, her canine teeth are bigger. Here’s Moses’ “before”:

And after (I don’t worry so much about the staining on the lower part of the tooth, I mostly want to get that hunk of tartar away from the gum line):

In addition to trying to minimize Moses’ kibble intake as much as possible, I’ve tried to get him to take in calcium from a good, crunchy source. But he cannot even figure out how to chew a tiny chicken wing, he is quite stumped by real meat (the rest of my dogs eat a raw drumstick each day). Giving the LGDs cow bones in the pasture is not very feasible, because they’d tend to fight over them, and then we’d be running over them with the mower. So lately I’ve been adding whole, natural eggshells to Moses’ food, and he scarfs those down blindly. I’m hoping that dietary change, combined with getting his teeth scaled now, may stave off further dental disease going forward.

Do-It-Yourself Dental

Tooth scaling is a little bit hard to do, but here’s why I prefer to do it myself versus taking dogs to the vet. For starters, anesthesia is expensive, and carries some risk in itself. And, I believe that when dogs are “under,” it’s tempting to just do a fast, hack-and-slash job since the dog is asleep and won’t react if the clinician does something painful. There is a risk if dental disease bacteria enters the bloodstream, it can cause one helluva blood infection. Blood infections are very dangerous. A friend of mine nearly lost a dog to one of these “recommended routine cleanings.” So, IMO, it’s a bad combination: one big, hurried scraping session, bleeding gum wounds, and a dog that’s asleep, not swallowing normally, nor reacting to pain.

In contrast, when I do it myself on a fully awake dog, I’ve got to go slow and be really careful. And the dog is salivating normally, swallowing and cleaning away debris while I work. Anyone who’s experienced a sloppy dental hygienist knows what it feels like when your gums are cut, then bleed. That is to be avoided, of course. The trick is to carefully slide the tooth scaler up above the tartar buildup, just under the gum line, and slightly push the gum up and away, but not so far as to damage it and make it bleed. A sharp downward slice with a fair amount of force will usually cause the tartar to come off in one big, flaky chunk. Then I need to halt the scaler’s motion before it stabs the lower gum or lip! It’s a tricky maneuver, but do-able. I think I learned to do it as a nine-year-old 4-H kid, so it’s not rocket science.

It requires a reasonably well-trained dog that will sit still for this. It’s ideal to condition puppies to teeth handling when they’re little, so it’s not a big deal to them later on. I didn’t do a lot of this with Bronte when she was young, but it was still possible for me to scale her teeth now. I just had her lie down, I sat over her shoulders to pin her (bearing my weight on my own legs, of course). I use my left hand to steady the head and pull the lips back, and my right hand holds the scaler. It’s just a quick minute or two of work if the teeth aren’t too bad. Moses and the border collies are easier, they will lie still on command (and Moses’ toenail training has transferred to this procedure as well…). Though they squirm and object a little, they’ll put up with it, knowing that a treat’s a’ comin’!

Disclaimer: I’m not offering veterinary advice to others, only a discussion my own practices and opinion. Of course everyone should consult with a professional they trust before performing medical procedures on dogs at home, or choosing feeding regimens.