Some treats can help reduce tartar and plaque on your pet's teeth. Here's how to choose.
Kitten brushing their teeth

Every time I take my cat Chispa to the doctor, my vet exclaims over how sleek and shiny she looks, while still staying slim and trim for her age. (Plenty of time spent outside prowling around and keeping an eye on the local mouse population seems to be doing the trick for keeping my 10-year-old cat in prime condition.)

But as pleased as the vet is about Chispa's body-weight condition, there's one thing that she always nags me about: the state of my little kitty's teeth. Apparently she has a buildup of tartar and plaque on her teeth, and when I first rescued her from an animal shelter, she already had a broken incisor. The snaggle-toothed look is kind of cute-but the tartar isn't.

I know I need to keep Chispa's teeth in good condition, because poor oral health in dogs and cats can lead to periodontal disease, an infection that can lead to bacteria reaching the bloodstream (bacteremia). Studies have shown that dogs with periodontal disease may also experience microscopic damage in the kidneys, heart and liver. Yikes. But have you ever tried brushing a cat or dog's teeth with a toothbrush? (I have. It's not easy!)

Apparently I'm not the only one who finds it challenging to brush my pet's teeth on a regular basis. And for that reason, there are a variety of treats and pet foods available on the market that claim to help clean pet's teeth and freshen their breath. But how do you know if they're safe and effective? Here's help deciding how to tackle the problem of tartar and plaque buildup with pet foods and treats.

Look for the VOHC Seal

Many pet foods and treats claim to clean teeth. But they can vary in their effectiveness, and some even pose a health risk. Under current guidelines, any company can say a dry kibble cleans teeth by a mechan­ical method (scraping off tartar). However, there is no requirement to prove this claim. Bones and rawhides may cause upset stomach or broken teeth. And a recent Tufts University study showed bully-stick chews can harbor dangerous bacteria.

Fortunately, there is a voluntary organization-the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC), led by independent veterinary dental experts-that evaluates products to help guide pet owners. Products that receive the VOHC seal have been proven to reduce tartar or plaque, while also posing no risk to the pet, when used as intended. The list of approved products can be found on the VOHC website (

However, it's worth noting that the VOHC seal doesn't necessarily mean that a treat or pet food is "good" for your pet-just that it's safe and meets "pre-set standards of plaque and calculus (tartar) retardation in dogs and cats." Just because a product helps reduce tartar doesn't mean it meets your pet's other nutritional needs. Be sure to check with your vet before adding dental treats to your pet's diet or starting new food, especially if he or she has any medical conditions or special nutrition needs.

Brushing Is Still Best

Most vets still recommend brushing twice daily as the best dental treatment for dogs and cats. Your vet can also sedate your pet to scrape the tartar off manually. That's what I ended up doing for Chispa, who still refuses to let me brush her teeth and turns up her nose at treats designed to clean her teeth. If your pet will tolerate brushing, great! If not, seek your vet's advice on dental care. You can read more at the American Veterinary Dental College website (, which also offers information on anesthesia-free dentistry practice.

Whatever approach you choose, your pet will appreciate a cleaner, pain-free mouth-and you'll probably appreciate having a pet with fresher breath too.

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