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Natural alternatives to dental chews for dogs

What are natural alternatives to dental treats for dogs?

26 Apr, 2019

Oral disease is common in dogs, particularly in older animals and small breed dogs. The condition is characterised by inflamed gums leading to loss of teeth and calculus (calcified plague) accumulating on the teeth.

Plague is the key factor in oral disease. It contains bacteria and accumulates quickly on clean teeth. Undisturbed plague mineralises to form calculus or tartar which forms a rough surface onto which plague can adhere.

Periodontal disease not only causes bad breath and tooth loss, but there is an association between periodontal disease and the general health of the dog. Dogs suffering from poor oral health suffer general discomfort and chronic inflammatory disease in other organs including the heart, lung, kidney, and liver.

Based on the prevalence and implications of oral disease, it is unsurprising there is such a wide range of teeth cleaning products for dogs.

Are dental chews good for keeping dogs’ teeth clean?

As plague accumulation is the key to the development and progression of periodontal disease, the consistency of dogs’ food can play a role in preventing plague build up. Hard foods, including dental chews, prevents periodontal disease in two ways:

  • Chewing stimulates saliva production. Saliva contains anti-bacterial agents that help keep the mouth clean and create an environment that is not conducive the formation of plague.
  • Physical abrasions of the food against the tooth surface prevents plague accumulating and removes newly formed plague.

What is in dental chews and are they good for dogs?

So, if hard dental chews stimulate chewing and abrades the tooth surface, are they good for dogs to eat on a semi-regular basis? What are the key ingredients in dental chews?


Many dental chews formed into bars or shapes (like a tooth brush) are mainly comprised of complex carbohydrates in the form of starch and fibre. Ingredients may be listed as potato starch, rice flour, rice, wheat starch, wheat flour, wheat gluten, tapioca, glycerine, lupine, oat fibre, or malt extract.

These ingredients are used for a range of reasons. Firstly, they aid the manufacturing process to create a product that can be moulded into the desired shape. Secondly, these ingredients, make the product palatable (typically sweet tasting) so the dog will eat it and finally, they are relatively cheap ingredients, so manufacturers can offer the product as a reasonable price.

While it is advantageous for manufacturers to use carbohydrates to manufacture dental chews, carbohydrates can contribute to weight gain in dogs. Consuming carbohydrates increases insulin activity in the dog’s body. The dog’s digestive system breaks down carbohydrates to glucose. Insulin is released to transport the glucose through the body. It also contributes to converting glucose to fat for storing in the body. The release of insulin prevents the body using it’s existing fat stores for energy, thus contributing to weight gain.

For dogs prone to obesity, there are some dental chews that offer an alternative to those with high carbohydrate content. These products’ main ingredients are meat or meal. These ingredients may be listed as “chicken”, “kangaroo”, “poultry meal” or “meat meal”. Typically, these products have fewer carbohydrates and may be a better option for dogs that are prone to gaining weight.

Thickeners and processing aids

These ingredients have little nutritional value to the dog and are added to aid the manufacturing process. They may be listed as gelatin, acacia gum, lecithin, soy lecithin, or yeast.

Flavours, colours and preservatives

These ingredients are included so the product looks and smells attractive to the dog owner. They also add flavour so they are palatable to the dog. Finally, preservatives allow the product to be stored without the product deteriorating. Flavours, colours and preservatives may be listed as potassium sorbate, vitamin E, tocopherols, citric acid, ascorbic acid, BHA (Butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (Butylated hydroxytoluene), “natural colorants”, “colour” or the source of the flavour e.g “natural poultry”, “smoke flavor”.

Vitamins and minerals

Dental chew products may have synthetic vitamins and minerals added. These may be listed as calcium carbonate, potassium chloride, zinc sulfate, copper sulfate, magnesium amino acid chelate, zinc amino acid chelate, iron amino acid chelate, copper amino acid chelate, manganese amino acid chelate, selenium, potassium iodide. Synthetic vitamins may be listed as a “supplement” e.g. Vitamin B12 Supplement.

What are natural, whole food alternatives to keeping dogs’ teeth clean?

While dental chews may be effective in preventing plague accumulation, some contain ingredients which provide limited nutritional value to the dog. There are natural, whole food alternatives that a species appropriate and provide a good source of essential nutrients to the dog.


Bones are an excellent, natural alternative to commercial dental chews for maintaining dogs’ oral health. There are wide range of bone products available to suit owners’ preferences and each dog.

Raw meaty bones

Bones with muscle and connective tissue attached encourage the dog to use all their teeth, so all teeth will be abraded and plague removed. The incisors (small teeth at the front of the mouth) are used to nibble and pull flesh from the bone. The canine (large teeth on the side of the mouth) are used to puncture and grasp the bone and flesh, while the pre-molars and molars in the back of the mouth, crush the meat and bone.

In a study of captive tigers, feeding a raw meaty bone twice weekly improved the tiger’s gum health, prevented plague forming on the teeth and disturbed existing plague. The study also found there was less food caught in the animal’s gums which restricted the growth of oral bacteria.

Raw meaty bones may include: chicken or turkey necks, chicken wings, quail, rabbit, whole fish, oxtail, roo tail, lamp flaps, beef brisket, or chicken carcass.

Purchase bones from a butcher, supermarket or reputable pet food supplier. Store and handle raw meat according to normal safe food handling guidelines.

Dehydrated bones

If raw meaty bones are not available to you, there are a wide range of dehydrated bone products. These products have a longer shelf life than raw meaty bones however depending on the type of bone, they may not give the dog the same opportunities to use the incisors and canines to nibble and rip muscle meat from the bone as raw bones with muscle tissue still attached.

Raw vegetables

Another alternative to raw meaty bones is providing your dog with large pieces of raw fibrous vegetables on a regular basis. Carrot, sweet potato, beetroot or pumpkin could be fed. Vegetables will allow the dog to exercise their pre-molars and molars to crush the material, it is unlikely however that the dog will use their incisors or canines.

Now you have some information about the options to keep your dog’s teeth clean and healthy, you are select the best option for your dog. Full Stride provides nutrition consultations to help formulate the diet that meets you and your dog’s needs.

For a canine nutritionist in your area, please refer to the practitioner listing at

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Until next time, enjoy your dogs.


Bjone, S, Brown, W, Billingham, J, Harris, A, & McGenity,P 2005 “Influence of chewing on dental health in dogs” Proceedings of the Australian Veterinary Association Annual Conference – Gold Coast, Australia (16 -19 May 2005)

DeBowes, L, Mosier, D, Logan, E, Harvey, C.E, Lowry, S,& Richardson, D.C. (1996) “Association of periodontal disease and histologic lesions in multiple organs from 45 dogs” Journal of Veterinary Dentistry, Vol 13 (2) 57 – 60

Evans, Howard and de Lahunta, Alexander (2013), Miller’s anatomy of the dog 4th edition, Elsevier Saunders, St Louis, Missouri, USA

Haberstroh, L. I., Ullrey, D. E., Sikarski, J. G., Richter, N. A., Colmery, B. H., & Myers, T. D. 1984. Diet and oral health in captive Amur tigers (Panthera tigris altaica). The Journal of Zoo Animal Medicine, 15(4), 142-146.

Kyllar, M & Witter, K 2005 “Prevalence of dental disorders in pet dogs” Veterinární medicína 50(11) : 496–505

Watson, A.D.J 1994 “Diet and periodontal disease in dogs and cats” Australian Veterinary Journal, Vol 71, No 10, October 1994