Periodically I get asked: “What is a good, safe product for my dog to chew on?” Taking into account any possible concerns of choking, foreign body obstruction or tooth fractures, I would have to say … half jokingly … their dog kibble, possibly! Having said that there is no truly safe dog chew treat or toy, I do recognize that most dogs seem to enjoy the chewing, in what seems like a way of releasing the stress from their day’s events. And most of us are going to give our dogs some form of chew treat or another. When we do this, whether we realize it or not, we are assuming a bit of risk by giving our dog chew treats.
Given this “ground breaking” news I will try to suggest ways to minimize your risks. So, first we need to know what risks we are assuming each and every time we give our dog that special chew treat.
The four major risks of chew treats are as follows:
1) choking on the treat,
2) swallowing a larger piece and causing an intestinal obstruction needing surgery,
3) Breaking a tooth while chewing on this treat. And
4) Weight gain – this is more of a chronic risk.
So let’s examine how we can decrease our risks. First off , let me say the only way to decrease your dogs risk completely is not to give them any chew toys or treats! Having said that, we can lower our risks and still allow our pets the fun of gnawing on a treat.
To avoid the first risk, you should only give chew toys and treats when your dog is supervised, and your dog should be trained from an early age to allow you to take things away from them, and to know and respond to the “leave it” or “drop it” command.
To minimize the second risk, never give a chew treat (especially at edible one) when your dog is excited or is expected to be excited. The reason for this is the same for you and me – you don’t want to be eating at the same time as getting all worked up because you could choke on your food.
To minimize the third risk, NEVER give excessively hard treats or toys to your dog. This includes cooked bones, hooves, antlers, etc. These increase the likelihood of breaking a tooth. A dog’s tooth enamel is no harder than ours. (They just have deeper roots and stronger chewing muscles). The most common tooth broken in this manner is the carnassial tooth, the large upper premolar tooth used for shearing and chewing by carnivores (see black arrow). Since this tooth is located at the back of the mouth, you can only see damage to this tooth if you draw the lip back a significant amount. A fracture on this tooth is usually a shearing type fracture commonly called a slab fracture. This can be a superficial fracture, removing the outer layer of enamel and causing increased tartar accumulation of this tooth. More commonly, the fracture is deeper, causing pulp ( root canal) exposure. Not only does this cause pain (although dog may not act painful) but it allows a route for bacteria to invade and cause infection and tooth root abscesses. Eventually, the byproducts from the bacteria and/or the white blood cell enzymes will cause bone destruction around the root tip. In addition, the blood vessels in the area will pick up the bacteria and spread it to other areas of the body.
Slab fractures come most often from chewing very hard treats or toys. So, a good rule of thumb is not to give anything you cannot whack across your knee without pain.
The picture below shows a rather nasty slab fracture in a carnassial tooth, with an obvious hole into the root canal, which is not only painful, but puts this dog at risk of an infection.
To minimize the fourth risk, remember that treats are treats. So be careful on the amount and frequency given as this can be a source of excess calories, and thus a cause for excess weight gain over time.
In summary, an assumption of risk is necessary if you are giving your pet chew treats or toys. We can decrease the risks by using common sense and knowing our own pet’s behaviour. However, we cannot eliminate the risk completely. Have us assess your pet’s teeth regularly. We can do this for most pets during their annual or semi-annual exams.
Dr. David Costello