Lacey, an 11-year-old Australian cattle dog mix, has a daily routine. After her long walk, she comes home to get her teeth brushed and enjoys a dental bone as a treat. She’s “never really thrilled” about having her teeth brushed, but she’s grown accustomed to the routine, says Bev Levreault, Lacey’s human. And if you think Lacey’s an example of a particularly pampered pet, you’re wrong. Her routine is fast becoming the norm.
Levreault, a 61-year-old lifelong dog owner in Williamstown, New York, had never focused much on her pets’ dental care before Lacey. Even with Lacey, the tooth brushing began as a training trick. But the owner of pet products brand Black Cat Dog Designs is now part of a rapidly growing set of pet owners who are focusing their attention on their four-legged friends’ dental health like never before, often spending more on their dogs’ oral care than on their own.
Sales of pet oral care products and services reached $5.2 billion in 2017, according to market research firm Packaged Facts. Of the pets, dogs are getting the most attention when it comes to oral care, comprising 85 percent of that market. More than half of U.S. dog owners take care of their pet’s teeth, according to the American Pet Products Association, and they are twice as likely as cat owners to purchase dental care products and services at their veterinarian’s office, a 2017-18 study by the association shows. Dog owners with dental products for their pets, including toothbrushes, dental chews and wipes, rose from 29 percent in 2006 to 43 percent in 2016, according to the APPA. And that’s only going to grow, suggests Tierra Bonaldi, an APPA pet lifestyle expert, as dog ownership shifts to millennials, who research has shown are willing to spend more on their pets’ health than older generations.
People love to kiss and hug the dogs and sleep with them, so they want them to have fresh-smelling breath.
Jan Bellows, Foundation for Veterinary Dentistry
What’s more, they’re willing to shell out much more for their dogs’ oral care than for their own. Dental cleaning procedures for dogs by a vet, for instance, cost between $500 and $3,000 — depending on whether an extraction is needed. For humans, professional teeth cleaning can cost $75 to $200, with X-rays another $100 to $300. However, most dental insurance covers 100 percent of routine cleanings twice a year. Dog toothbrush-toothpaste sets start at $5, compared to $1 for human toothbrushes. America has 89.7 million pet dogs, according to the APPA, so owners spend an average of $49.70 on a dog’s dental care annually. By comparison, the average American spends $42.24 on her or his annual dental care in out-of-pocket expenses, according to the American Dental Association — so owners are spending 18 percent more on Fido.
Dog owners are also seeking out more information on pet dental care. From January 2018-January 2019, online searches for dog dental health increased 26 percent, according to an analysis by SEMrush, a marketing data provider. Searches for “dog toothbrush” grew 83 percent. And companies from giants to startups are responding to that demand. Purina, Nestlé’s pet care subsidiary, launched its DentaLife line in 2016. Purina’s dental products constitute 12 percent of the firm’s total pet treat category. Los Angeles–based startup Bristly produces DIY brushing sticks for dogs.
“As the humanization of pets continues, pet owners are becoming more concerned about their pet’s overall health,” says Bonaldi.
It’s not entirely surprising that dog owners are emphasizing dental care for their pets more than cat owners. Dogs are more likely than cats to develop periodontal disease, which causes gum inflammation and bleeding. According to the Australian and American veterinary dental societies, more than 80 percent of dogs develop gum disease by the age of 3, compared to more than 70 percent of cats at the same age.
The Foundation for Veterinary Dentistry is among the organizations raising awareness about the disease, says Jan Bellows, president of the foundation and a veterinarian based in Weston, Florida. The group’s efforts have focused specifically on bad breath, which isn’t normal for dogs and could be a sign of a periodontal issue, he says. “People love to kiss and hug the dogs and sleep with them, so they want them to have fresh-smelling breath,” Bellows says.
At-home products make that easier. Lacey has her own toothbrush and toothpaste for dogs. And companies like Purina continue to add new dental products to their offerings. “Functional treats” make up 25 percent of the pet treat category, and “better-for-you treats” are growing faster than the overall category, says Joe Toscano, the company’s vice president of trade and industry development.
Bellows says that while he supports any at-home method for keeping dogs’ teeth clean, teeth brushing is sometimes problematic — dogs usually don’t like it, and owners often give up. He prefers dental wipes, which he uses for his own dog.
Levreault hasn’t given up, but she does sense reluctance from Lacey. “She comes over and sits, and it’s like, ‘OK, I’ll do this,’” says Levreault. Bellows urges pet owners to verify any product that they use as certified by the Veterinary Oral Health Council. He also recommends dogs have annual dental exams at the vet and professional teeth cleanings to remove plaque and tartar, which require general anesthesia.
Other dog owners are devising their own fixes. Rachel Fusaro of Austin, Texas, is part of a community of social media pet influencers helping to educate health-conscious pet owners. Her YouTube videos cover many pet health and wellness topics, including brushing dogs’ teeth. Fusaro has two rescue dogs, 9-year-old chocolate Labrador Bentley and 1-year-old Goldendoodle mix Finnegan, and she brushes their teeth daily, something they’ve grown accustomed to.
“Bentley will nudge me if I forget,” she says. “He’ll sit where his toothbrush is and just look at me.”
Fusaro prefers using all-natural dental powder for dogs or a homemade coconut oil–baking soda mix, and a “cheap human toothbrush.” She insists healthy teeth start with a good diet, and she feeds her pets a raw diet of meat, organs and ground bone, which “works like a gentle abrasive on their teeth” and helps remove debris. “This is how dogs in the wild clean their teeth,” she says. “That’s why they don’t have the dental issues that our pet canines have today.” Most vets, though, don’t recommend raw food diets, says Bellows, since no regulatory body exists to ensure the safety of the feed.
Because — as with humans — each dog is different, some owners customize dental health methods for each pet. Stacey Margaret Jones uses different strategies for her four dogs. Her two borzois, Gwenhyfar, 6, and Lavinia, 2, get raw chicken legs a few times a week, as recommended by the dogs’ breeder, to help clean their teeth. Jones plans to also use an oral care spray for her year-old rough collie, Gareth. She already uses the spray for Beatrice, her 10-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel, who had to have four teeth removed a few years ago.
Dental issues are common in Beatrice’s breed, but it was a shock and led Jones to think more about her pets’ teeth in general. “We’d never had a dog lose teeth,” says Jones, a writer and market researcher in Conway, Arkansas. “The vet tech, honestly, was a little shaming and said, ‘Well, that’s what happens when you don’t do regular dental care.’”
She’s had dog toothbrushes in the past, but “none of our dogs like to have their teeth brushed.” They resisted it, and “it seemed like it wasn’t helpful.” Figuring out what does work for the dogs is totally worth it, for owners like Jones.
“We love [our dogs] so much,” she says, that once it’s clear they need some help, “we want to do it if we can.”