We recently received an e-mail from a long-time client asking about a product she saw advertised on Facebook. The product is one of many being touted as a miracle for pet dental health. “No brushing required!” “No more dog breath!” “Remove plaque and tartar!” Unfortunately, all of these “benefits” come with a huge risk: most of these sprays contain alcohol. Ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, ethanol: by any of these names, “all natural” alcohol is still toxic to pets.
Although alcohol is effective at killing bacteria (Listerine is 26% alcohol), it can cause more harm than good. Here’s why:
Alcohol is rapidly absorbed through the oral mucosa into the bloodstream, where it then enters the brain and depresses the central nervous system. This could cause respiratory depression and (at high doses) death.
Alcohol is metabolized in the liver and, even in small amounts, could cause liver disease in dogs and cats.
Alcohol is a carcinogen, and in humans has been found to be a cause of malignant tumors of the oral cavity, throat, esophagus, liver, colon/rectum, and breast (There is an excellent review of this in the article “Safety evaluation of topical applications of ethanol on the skin and inside the oral cavity”, by DW Lachenmeier, in the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, 2008).
The other problem with these products is that they give pet parents a false sense of security. Similar to anesthesia-free dental cleaning, even if the teeth look cleaner and the breath smells better, there could still be significant gum disease and bone destruction around the teeth. The only way to diagnose and treat dental disease is with dental radiographs (x-rays) and a comprehensive oral health evaluation under general anesthesia.
Reviewers of these products online often state “My vet said my dog couldn’t be anesthetized because he’s too old” or “…has a heart condition” or some other reason. There are very few pets that cannot be safely anesthetized. In our practice, we regularly anesthetize geriatric patients, and those with multiple medical conditions including heart disease, kidney disease, seizure disorders, liver shunts, diabetes, Cushing’s disease…. Yes, we have a board-certified anesthesiologist, and we are extremely fortunate. However, with appropriate drug selection, anesthetic monitoring equipment, and constant presence of veterinary technicians during and after the procedure, most of these “high risk” patients could be safely anesthetized in any modern, well-equipped and properly staffed veterinary hospital. Dental disease significantly impacts quality of life, and treating this disease should not be considered “elective” any more than giving insulin to a cat with diabetes or surgically removing a tumor on a dog’s spleen. These products capitalize on pet owners’ fear of anesthesia. Fear should not result in neglect to treat an animal’s oral disease.
When looking for products to help with reducing plaque and tartar, look for the “VOHC Accepted” seal. This indicates that the product meets or exceeds a minimum standard of effectiveness.