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Cornell Richard P. Riney Canine Health Center

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Dental sprays

Dental sprays don’t eliminate the need for brushing teeth

Dog owners know that they should brush their dogs’ teeth — daily is best; weekly is acceptable — but the problem is that many dogs resist it. It isn’t easy to do either, which makes advertisements about dental sprays very appealing.

Most dental products, including dental sprays, target plaque formation in the fight to keep your dog’s mouth healthy. That’s good because plaque, a bacterial film, is bad. The basic progression of periodontal disease is that the plaque forms on the teeth, and over time, layers of plaque harden into calculus (or tartar). Plaque is transparent and easy to remove, whereas calculus is firmly attached to the teeth.

What are they?

Dental sprays claim to prevent or break down plaque buildup. Most products do not need to be sprayed onto the teeth, as they will mix with the dog’s saliva and be moved around the mouth as the dog licks and swallows. Instructions should be followed closely. Some products have different dosages based on the size of the dog, while others have different frequency protocols depending on the condition of the dog’s teeth. As with any product, you are more likely to achieve positive results if you use it consistently.

Use with brushing

Lindsey Schneider, D.V.M. '13, dentistry and oral surgery resident at the Cornell University Hospital for Animals, says, “Daily tooth brushing is the most effective way of maintaining our pets’ oral health and minimizing the progression of periodontal disease. Other home care strategies (such as dental chews, water additives, sprays, etc.) work best when used in conjunction with tooth brushing.”

Many dental sprays tout that brushing is not necessary, but combining the two may be beneficial. “I think it would be fine to use the spray at the same time as tooth brushing (either immediately before or after), but I would refer to the manufacturer instructions for their recommendation,” Schneider says.

Choosing a product

“When discussing oral home care with clients, I refer them to the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s website, which contains a list of products that have been awarded the VOHC Seal of Acceptance,” says Schneider. “These products are awarded the seal only if they meet pre-set standards of plaque and calculus control in clinical trials. However, the results must be considered with a healthy dose of skepticism, as the trials are typically funded by the company selling the product.”

Even with companies funding their own studies, few others have evaluated the effectiveness of various substances for controlling plaque and calculus in pets. Most of the ingredients used in pet dental products are chosen based on studies in humans. While some may cross over and have beneficial effects for dogs too, it is important to remember that dogs and humans are not biologically the same and may not respond in the same way.

Read the ingredients labels carefully. One of the few ingredients that has scientific backing for canine dental benefits is chlorhexidine. Chlorhexidine has antimicrobial properties that help to decrease the bacteria in your dog’s mouth and disrupt the plaque formation process. It is most commonly used as a rinse in conjunction with a professional dental cleaning, but can be found in home care products as well.

“One ingredient I recommend avoiding is xylitol, a sugar alcohol that can cause life-threatening hypoglycemia in pets,” says Schneider. “The amount of xylitol in dental products is low enough that it shouldn’t cause problems, but accidental overdosing is theoretically possible.”

She notes that menthol, eugenol and thymol — commonly found in dental hygiene products for humans — can taste bad to dogs.

Bottom line

There isn’t sufficient scientific data to support the effectiveness of dental sprays, but a carefully chosen dental spray product is unlikely to do harm and may help.

Schneider says, “Ultimately, all home care products are most effective when used as part of an overall dental care program that begins with a veterinarian examination and professional treatment.”

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.