This article was published in the November 2023 issue of Pet Food Processing. Read it and other articles from this issue in our November digital edition. 

With pet parents becoming hyper-aware of the importance of their pet’s health and wellness, many are purchasing nutritional products that carry functional benefits. From hip and joint health to allergy support and more, consumers are deeply interested in ensuring their pet’s overall health, with many starting in their pets’ mouths.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, periodontal disease is the most common dental condition in cats and dogs. By the time most of these pets reach three years old, they will very likely have some early evidence of the painful disease.

“Eighty percent of dogs over the age of three have some form of gum disease,” detailed Joe Roetheli, chief executive officer of Kansas City, Mo.-based Pet’s Best Life, parent company of Yummy Combs. “But only 20% of these owners realize that their dogs are suffering in pain and are on a path to more serious consequences, up to and including premature death.”

Just like humans, oral health issues for pets don’t just stay in the mouth but can cause issues throughout other parts of the body.

Bocce's Bakery's Brushy Sticks

To support pet oral health, Bocce’s Bakery uses all-natural and limited ingredients, like coconut and mint, in its Brushy Sticks. 

| Source: Antelope Pets

“The oral microbiome — the collection of microorganisms that live in the mouth — not only affects the development of dental disease, but also impacts the gut microbiome, which is an essential part of the immune system, digestion and even cognitive/brain health,” said Lindsey Wendt, DVM, chief veterinary officer of San Francisco-based Antelope Pets, parent company of Bocce’s Bakery and Ark Naturals. “Dental disease is linked to the development of arthritis and even dementia/cognitive disease over time.”

Additionally, Wendt shared dental disease can shorten a dog’s lifespan by as much as 33% due to other health issues caused by poor oral health in the long term. With overall pet wellness starting in the mouth, pet parents have turned to the functional benefits of dental treats.


Taking shape

Though treats offering dental benefits may represent a niche area of the expansive pet treat category, pet parents are seeking ways to better support their companions’ oral health, therefore leading many to dip their toes into the dental segment. According to research from Mintel, 69% of pet parents are interested in pet treats that carry functional health benefits, and 21% of new cat and dog treat products launched in 2022 claimed an oral health benefit and/or tartar prevention.

“In addition to looking to dental treats to effectively help with their pet’s oral care health, pet parents still want other things from their dental treats — something that helps them to bond more with their pets and they can feel good about giving them,” said Edwin Padilla, marketing director for GREENIES, Mars Petcare, St. Louis. “The ideal dental treat is made with quality ingredients that their pet will enjoy and is effective at improving their wellbeing.”

Pet's Best Life's Yummy Combs dental treats

Pet’s Best Life Yummy Combs dental treats for dogs have a unique, patented shape and also boast the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) Seal of Acceptance.

| Source: Pet’s Best Life

Many dental treats and chews on the market are approaching the category through either innovative textures or shapes.

Pet’s Best Life’s Yummy Combs® dog dental treats boast a unique design — a “hexagonal hockey puck” on the perimeter with an “interior cell of a bee’s nest” on the top and bottom, as described by Roetheli. This patented design helps clean and floss a dog’s teeth from all angles.

“We combine this geometry with a specific range of hardness to floss and scrub teeth to deter tartar accumulation,” he said. “Our treat is very different from most other dog dental treats for it is the revolutionary shape and hardness that accounts for deterring and removing tartar as opposed to specific ingredients.”

Mars Petcare’s GREENIES brand also takes shape and texture seriously, utilizing ridges and a chewy texture to help clean pets’ teeth. The brand offers dental treats for dogs and cats formulated with natural ingredients, as well as vitamins, minerals and nutrients, to clean down to the gumline, reducing tartar and plaque buildup, and freshening breath.


Leveraging ingredients

Others are approaching oral health from an ingredient perspective, focusing on active, natural or limited ingredients to provide a benefit.

Bocce’s Bakery’s Breath Bites and Brushy Sticks are made with all-natural and limited ingredients, including coconut and mint for breath freshening benefits, and do not contain any artificial flavors or fillers. Sister company Ark Naturals’ Protection+ Brushless Toothpaste Chews are made with astaxanthin, an antioxidant that boosts antibodies already present in a dog’s saliva to build up a barrier preventing plaque and tartar from sticking to teeth.

Zesty Paws' Dental Bones

In addition to offering oral health benefits, Zesty Paws utilizes active ingredients in its Dental Bones to support joint, gut, immune, and skin and coat health.

| Source: Zesty Paws

Zesty Paws, Orlando, Fla., is also utilizing active ingredients, in addition to a ridged texture, in its oral health treats. The brand’s Dental Bones™ are formulated with natural ingredients including sweet potato flour, turmeric and cinnamon, and a postbiotic ingredient called EpiCor Pets® to help freshen breath, promote gum health, and control tarter and plaque buildup.

With consumers increasingly seeking more natural nutritional products, ingredient innovations are continuing throughout the dental treat sector. Insects are showing strong potential in promoting oral health as insect-based pet food formulas proliferate the industry.

“About a year ago, I noticed that my eight-year-old black lab Tuco had white teeth,” shared Anne Carlson, founder and chief executive officer of Jiminy’s, Berkeley, Calif. “We hadn’t brushed his teeth, no dental chews, nothing. But we had been feeding him our Good Grub food exclusively for several years. We wondered if there was a correlation and reached out to our animal scientists and they found there was absolutely a correlation.

“Black soldier fly larvae (BSFL) have medium chain fatty acids, and those medium chain fatty acids are anti-microbial, so the protein helps clean the teeth,” she explained.

Following this research, Jiminy’s introduced its Dental Chews for dogs, made with protein from BSFL and other ingredients, including cinnamon to provide anti-inflammatory and breath-freshening upsides.

According to Antelope Pets, natural ingredients making their way into the category include dried seaweed meal, pre- and probiotics, and cannabigerol (CBG), which naturally decreases the presence of disease-causing oral bacteria.

Other emerging ingredients in this space aim to appease consumers’ demands for holistic and multi-functional treats.

Jiminy's Dental Chews made with BSFL

BSFL protein in Jiminy’s Dental Chews has been shown to contain anti-microbial medium chain fatty acids, which can help reduce oral inflammation while providing eco-friendly benefits.

| Source: Jiminy’s

“Pet parents prefer treats without artificial additives, fillers or chemicals and are now seeking holistic solutions to enhance their pets’ overall health and happiness,” said Yvethe Tyszka, vice president of marketing, Zesty Paws.

Though oral health is imperative to overall health, pet parents are wanting more bang for their buck, purchasing dental treats that boast health benefits in addition to those seen in the mouth. Zesty Paws has specifically formulated its Dental Bones with this in mind, offering a more holistic approach. The treats not only support oral and gum health, but also target joint, gut, immune, and skin and coat health.

“Dental treats will likely continue to feature high-quality ingredients with a focus on transparency and quality,” Tyszka shared. “They will continue to evolve beyond traditional oral care to offer a broader range of functional benefits.”

In addition to their innovative design, Yummy Combs dental treats are also fortified with additional ingredients that offer other health benefits, including glucosamine, chondroitin, salmon oil, turmeric, casein, and lecithin, to embrace this demand for multi-functional treats.


Cleaning up the future

According to Antelope Pets, consumer education is needed in conjunction with an industry-wide understanding that dental treats, as well as other dental care products for pets, should not be approached as “one-size-fits-all.” Just as the industry continues to develop pet foods tailored to specific life stages, lifestyles and breeds, the dental treat sector of the industry may need to embrace this more tailored mindset.

Additionally, newer studies in pet oral health have begun to dig deeper into the root causes of dental disease, revealing an enhanced importance on maintaining the mouth microbiome, according to Lindsey Wendt, DVM, chief veterinary officer of Antelope Pets.

“The main drivers of the changes in the dental treat sector currently are based on pet parent demand, which ends up focusing more on the cosmetics than the underlying health of the mouth,” she explained. “From a veterinary perspective, newer research is focusing on the impact that microorganisms, especially bacterial species, have on the development of gingivitis, calcified tartar, and the health of the tooth itself.

“I expect there to be more of a focus on oral microbiome balance and its impact on the health of the oral cavity/mouth rather than the current focus, which has been primarily physical abrasion of the tooth surface or introduction of antiseptics to decrease bacterial levels in the mouth,” Wendt added. “Newer research shows that this is not an effective long-term strategy as it kills both the harmful and beneficial bacteria.”


Educating consumers

Undoubtedly, oral health plays a significant role in overall health and wellbeing in pets. However, this specific area of pet health has severely lagged behind others in consumer awareness. This means that the onus is on brands to educate consumers.

“Despite the dental disease prevalence, many pet owning households are not aware of the issue and, therefore, do not purchase dental treats,” Padilla revealed. “The oral care treat category has been relatively flat over the past few years, and changing consumer habits has been no easy task.

“However, the dental disease crisis is critical, and the GREENIES brand is on a mission to drive more awareness by educating pet parents on the importance of building a holistic oral care routine to improve their pet’s oral health wellbeing,” he added. “As more consumers become aware of this issue and understand the benefits to addressing canine dental health, we expect many will adopt daily dental treats.”

Tyszka added, “The sector needs to continue to focus on educating consumers about the importance of oral care and how dental treats can contribute to their pets’ wellbeing. Pet parents also have high expectations for the products they give to their pets and meeting these expectations in terms of efficacy and safety is a constant challenge.”

As consumer awareness advances, it will become even more imperative for brands to ensure the safety and efficacy of their dental treats, from the ingredients included in treat formulas to the data used to back up product claims. New ingredients entering this category will experience higher levels of scrutiny as safety and efficacy concerns for consumers continue to rise.

“There will be a greater scrutiny of ingredients,” Carlson shared. “This is ongoing in all sectors, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see it in the dental category as well. New pet parents leverage online research regarding the effects different ingredients can have on their pets. As it should, the industry is being held to account on each ingredient and Jiminy’s is no exception.”

In addition to the careful selection of ingredients, clinical trials are another way to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of dental treats. According to Roetheli, consumers are questioning how dental treat products perform against their claims, leading many to turn to clinical studies and third-party validation.

“[Dog owners] will base buying more on effective performance data than unsubstantiated marketing claims,” said Joe Roetheli, Pet’s Best Life.]

The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC), operated by the American Veterinary Dental College, Meridian, Idaho, serves as one way to assuage these consumers. The VOHC offers a Seal of Acceptance, recognizing products that “meet pre-set standards of plaque and tarter retardation in cats and dogs.” The Seal of Acceptance is awarded to a variety of dental care products, including Yummy Combs and GREENIES dental treats just to name a few, following a review of data conducted in accordance with VOHC’s protocols.

In addition to its VOHC Seal of Acceptance, Pet’s Best Life has conducted clinical studies on its Yummy Combs to ensure efficacy, revealing that regular use can help remove more than 25% of hardened tartar, as well as freshen breath by 46%.

“Patents and clinical test results, such as required for the VOHC Seal, provide dog owners with documentation that a product works,” Roetheli explained. “Patents have long been a proxy for innovation.”

Consumer conscientiousness on claims — and the data used to support those claims — will prove a challenge for the dental treat category as it progresses.

“Dog owners will continue to become more conscientious about their selection of treats,” Roetheli said. “They will base buying more on effective performance data than unsubstantiated marketing claims… People [are] grateful to see data to support the dental claims.

“I envision a new higher plateau where dog owners want a treat to be more than providing validated dental care; they also desire advanced safety and superior nutrition to complement the pre-requisite of great taste,” he concluded.

Read more about pet treat products.