A look at how nutrition impacts your dog or cat’s dental health, and why a diet that includes raw meat and bones may be the best way to prevent periodontal disease.
If you have a dog or cat with periodontal disease, you’re familiar with the signs. They include bleeding and painful gums; foul breath; tartar-covered teeth that loosen and may even come out; and receding gums with pus-filled pockets round the tooth roots. Needless to say, periodontal disease is very unpleasant — and very painful for your dog or cat. On the plus side, maintaining good dental health in your animal companion may be as easy as providing him with a diet of raw meat and bones.
Periodontal disease is endemic
Periodontal disease is one of the first degenerative disease processes to afflict today’s domestic cats and dogs; in fact, it often starts before the animals even hit puberty. By the age of five, around 85% of dogs and cats are exhibiting some degree of periodontal disease. This problem is reaching epidemic proportions in the canine and feline population throughout the Western world. And it is also a far more dangerous problem for our furry family members than it is for we humans.
One of the first signs that a dog or cat has periodontal disease is a line of red, inflamed tissue along the gum-line. Unfortunately, this is not something most people notice. Over time, however, particularly when people fail to take suitable preventative measures, the signs of advancing disease become difficult to dismiss. These can include excessive drooling, pawing at the mouth, pain when eating, reluctance to chew, and food dropping from the mouth when eating. Facial swelling, a reluctance to be handled round the head, and even aggression may also occur.
Periodontal disease starts insidiously as simple gingivitis, an inflammation of the gum-line with no damage to the supporting tooth structures. At this stage, basic hygiene measures (teeth cleaning) or even a change in diet may be enough to halt it in its tracks. But left untreated, the problem can become progressive, and to a degree, even irreversible, including actual loss (resorption) of the jawbone itself. Worse yet, periodontal disease can have long-term and debilitating consequences for other parts of the body, including the cardiovascular, respiratory, and immune systems, the kidneys, and less commonly, the reproductive system (the latter is less common only because most dogs and cats are spayed or neutered at a young age). The mouth has become a focus of infection that is quietly and insidiously spreading blood-borne bacterial infections around the body.
So what’s the solution?
Many experts will say that the only way to prevent periodontal disease dogs and cats is by daily cleaning their teeth with a toothbrush and specially-formulated toothpaste. But that isn’t the only answer. In fact, periodontal disease, as bad and as common as it is, does not have to be. It can be prevented, and (to a degree) even reversed and obliterated once established. The clues to the solution lie in some simple epidemiological observations.
When I was a veterinary student in the early to mid-1970s, our lecturers stressed that we wouldn’t see a lot of animals with diseases of the periodontium if we practiced veterinary medicine here in Australia. Should we choose to practice in North America, we would find periodontal disease to be one of the most common problems we would encounter. After graduating as a veterinary surgeon, however, I witnessed a gradual increase in the incidence of periodontal disease in Australia, most particularly in the smaller dog breeds, with the Maltese terrier being a prime example. Now, we Australian vets find that periodontal disease is as common here as it is in the rest of the developed world — in all breeds of dogs and cats. The question is, why? The answer turns out to be deceptively simple. The increased incidence of periodontal disease in Australia parallels the decreased feeding of raw meat and bones in canine and feline populations.
In the 70s, Australian dogs and cats gnawed on raw meaty bones and chunky pieces of raw meat. Tough and abrasive animal tissues had been a constant and normal part of their diets from time immemorial. In contrast, dogs and cats in the US and Canada (in the 70s and today) consume a diet that — for the most part — lacks these simple food items.
Why raw food is so good for dental health
How do raw meat and bones chart a healthy course for the canine and feline mouth? Their role is multifactorial. It involves optimal immune system functioning; the constant repopulation of the oral cavity with those organisms found in the raw food; the chemical nature of raw food; and the physical cleansing activities of meat, bone, cartilage, and tendons on tooth enamel and gums. In short, raw meat and bones create the optimal conditions for healthy teeth and gums. This explains why the Australian cat and dog population was largely free of periodontal disease in the 1970s; it was because the food they ate fostered oral health. Meanwhile, this type of food was not part of the canine and feline diet in North America.
Your dog or cat’s oral microbiome
To best deal with any health problem, it is vital to understand how it arises in the first place. What are the inciting factors and what, if anything, can we do about them? This is the deceptively simple approach to dealing with every health problem we might encounter in ourselves or our animals. In the case of periodontal disease, however, we need to look a little more closely at the canine and feline mouth before we can gain that understanding.
The first thing we notice is the millions upon millions of bacteria that inhabit this space. This moist, warm, and food-filled cavern with its enamel-covered teeth and its many nooks and crannies is the perfect environment for supporting this bacteria. And yes, they are supposed to be there; we have labeled this group of creatures the oral “microbiome”. These single-celled organisms have lived in harmony with creatures like dogs, cats, and humans since multicellular life began some 600 million years ago. And the key to this harmony (health) or disharmony (disease — in this case, periodontal disease) is food.
In a healthy mouth, the bacteria are principally air-loving species, the so-called gram-positive bacteria.* But when conditions are ripe for disharmony, air-hating, gram-negative bacterial species* tend to predominate.
So what factors determine the makeup of the oral microbiome in our cats and dogs? When healthy bacteria predominate, they will stimulate a healthy immune response and ensure that the unhealthy bacteria do not thrive. If dental health is neglected, a biofilm of unhealthy bacteria begins to build up on the tooth enamel. As a film of plaque (made up of bacterial bodies and food debris) builds up, the increasingly anaerobic conditions begin to favor the presence of gram-negative and hostile bacteria. These bacteria love the lack of oxygen and begin to thrive, out-competing the healthy bacteria and taking over as the principal organisms within the oral microbiome. It is at this stage that the secretions of these unhealthy bacteria, together with the immune system’s over-reaction to their presence, begins its damaging effects on the tissues that support the teeth. Periodontal disease has begun.
*When pathologists stain bacteria in order to see them under the microscope, they can use the gram stain procedure. Gram-negative bacteria (found principally at the back end of the animal…e.g. in the colon) stain red, while gram-positive bacteria (found principally at the front end… e.g. in the mouth), stain purple.
The bottom line
The solution to periodontal disease in dogs and cats is therefore quite simple – all that’s required is a change in diet. The answer lies in the daily use of nature’s toothbrush — the humble raw, meaty bone with its attached cartilage and tendons, together with large chunks of tough, raw meat. Even if your dog or cat eats a dry or canned diet, the addition of raw food will help keep his teeth and gums healthy. We know this through our comparison of Australian and North American dogs and cats back in the seventies — and because a growing number of people are turning back to this time-honored and effective way to rid their dogs and cats of periodontal disease, with excellent results.
You can learn more about raw feeding at drianbillinghurst.com.