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Give Your Dog a Bone (A conversation with The Canine Coach on keeping your dog’s teeth clean.)

We recently had the privilege of sitting down to talk about dental hygiene for dogs with one of Minneapolis’ top certified dog trainers and dog behavior specialists, Maureen Haggerty, otherwise known as “The Canine Coach”.

Q. What do you recommend people do when it comes to doggie dental hygiene?

A. Brushing your dog’s teeth is a noble act, but through my personal experience I discovered that I got the same if not better results from letting them chew on raw bones. Raw knuckle bones (the joints) in particular are great because they are soft and still have some tendons and muscle meat attached. They look kind of round like the shape of your fist. These bones clean your dog’s teeth in addition to providing them with a nice oral workout – not to mention a healthy dose of natural calcium.

Q. Does it matter if the bones are raw or cooked?

A. It does matter. Raw knuckle bones are what I recommend versus cooked or sterilized bones. Cooked bones are more likely to splinter from the effect that high cooking temperatures have on them. And cooked bones, especially the white sterilized bones from the pet stores, will also be deprived of beneficial nutrients which raw knuckle bones are chock full of. A further benefit of raw bones versus the white sterilized bones from the store, are that they are much more yummy to your dog. This translates into more chewing time from your dog, which will both keep him occupied and better clean his teeth.

Q. Why the knuckle bone as opposed to other types of bones?

A. Raw knuckle bones are soft and allow dogs of all sizes to scrape their teeth into the bone, nicely cleaning food and tartar from their teeth. The meat tissue typically still left on the bones allow for a separate type of chewing, which is natural and necessary for your dog. This is the nibbling and pulling you see your dog do with his front teeth. They will use their front teeth to pull the tissue off the bones which is a great way to clean these teeth – natural flossing, if you will.

Being that this is a conversation about teeth cleaning, I am going to focus on the raw knuckle bone in particular as the best type for the topic at hand. This is not to say dogs should never chew on anything else or any other type of bone. Satisfying the need to chew is very important whether or not it contributes to keeping the teeth clean. So let me just say that while other bones may make fine chew toys, I don’t feel they serve the teeth cleaning purpose. One in particular that I don’t recommend for teeth cleaning (besides cooked or sterilized bones) is the femur bone, which ironically is the stereotypical “dog bone” shaped bone. While your dogs will enjoy raw femur bones, I find that they don’t do as good of a job at cleaning the teeth because generally dogs cannot scrape into the femur as easily as they can with the knuckle bone. I also find that the enjoyment doesn’t last as long as it does with a knuckle bone. Many dogs spend most of their time licking out all of the marrow from the femur bones, which may be tasty but has nothing to do with teeth cleaning. Once the marrow is gone, most dogs seem to lose interest. Unlike raw knuckle bones, femur bones are usually very clean, with no meat tissue on them, and they are not very edible because you have to be careful for narrow walled femur bones, which might split upon chewing creating sharp edges. In addition, the marrow in femur bones is very rich and high in fat. Not that this is bad for your dog, but some dogs may react with diarrhea caused by the marrow, though most dogs do just fine with it.

Q. Where do you find raw knuckle bones?

A. The best place to find raw knuckle or femur bones is from your local butcher of the meat counter at your local supermarket. Ask them if they will cut them to the appropriate size for your dog.

Q. What about small dogs. Is there a more appropriate size bone for small breeds?

A. Ask your butcher if she will cut the bones down if they seem too large for your dog. Not that your small dog can’t handle the big bones, but you wouldn’t want them to consume too much at once (although most dogs are likely to self-regulate). Also, you will have more bone left to put back in your frig or freezer. Femur bones are often cut into small pieces at your grocery store’s meat section. But I do prefer the knuckle bones, and you can get those cut down if you want. Also, make sure the bone size is large enough. Femur bones need to be longer than your dog’s mouth is wide. Too short of a femur bone has been known to get lodged in the dogs mouth between their teeth.

Q. How do raw bones compare in price to other chew items that are marketed as being good for cleaning teeth?

A. Ah, yes, another advantage of real, fresh bones. Grocers and butchers charge around $1.00 per pound for bones. A one-pound bone is a good size for a large breed dog. That same bone, processed, “barbequed smoked”, and packaged at the pet store may cost $5.00 and up. Nylabone also makes edible bones in flavors like carrot and peanut butter, I think these run about $3 – $4 a piece, and they are consumed rather quickly.

Q. Is this alternative to teeth brushing a philosophy followed by Holistic Vets, Conventional Vets or both, generally speaking?

A. I actually have not discussed this with any vets. I do get comments with each visit how clean and healthy my dogs’ teeth and gums look. They say I do I good job brushing, and I just tell them it is the bones they chew on.

Q. How often do you recommend my dog chew on raw bones…and for how long should each “chew session” last?

A. I let my dogs and any guest dogs chew on them as long as they want. The first chewing session on a fresh bone typically lasts 30 – 60 minutes. But I have had some guest dogs chew on them for hours straight, being very delighted in this new treat. Chewing is also nice exercise for your dog. I find them very content and relaxed while chewing and a little sleepy afterwards.

Q. How should the bones be stored when not in use?

A. When I bring home new bones, they are stored in my freezer until they are given to the dog. I usually thaw them out or run warm water over them before giving to my dogs. After your dog is done chewing on the bone, if he leaves any meat on the bone, I would put it back in the freezer or refrigerator. If after the first chewing, the bone is pretty well cleaned up, I let them stay out. Although do not let the bones stay outside in the warm months if you do not want flies all over them.

Q. Is this bone chewing thing a stinky and messy past time?

A. Well, not so stinky when they are fresh, but definitely messy. You will want to keep your dog on a doggy blanket or towel that can be easily washed, keep them outside, or contained to their crate, which can be easily washed out. Once the bone has been chewed down well, they are actually quite clean and I let my own dogs chew on them throughout the house.

Keep in mind that many holistic veterinarians still advocate regular brushing and annual dental care (teeth cleaning, polishing and full dental exam) even for dogs that eat raw bones. This is especially important for dogs with very poor dental health and for breeds with unique oral structure such as greyhounds, poodles, or collies. Also, dogs with poor health or tooth quality can have tooth fractures when chewing on raw bones.

Proper tooth and gum health can prevent bad breath, periodontal disease, discomfort and pain associated with inflamed or infected gums, as well as more serious conditions such as kidney disease, liver disease, heart conditions and joint problems. Plaque and tartar can build on the teeth, offsetting the balance of good bacteria in the mouth, which leaves way for infection and disease to spread. Whether you brush her teeth daily, or let your dog chew on raw knuckle bones daily, what’s important is removing that plaque and tartar regularly. This and a healthy dog food diet full of naturally-occurring nutrients will keep the immune system up and the good bacteria plentiful – which in turn will make your canine’s canines shine.