Consumers love their pets, and will do almost anything for them. From exotic grooming rituals, spas and jewel-encrusted collars to premium foods and meal delivery services, America's most pampered pets are bringing a whole new meaning to the expression "It's a dog's life."
But for all the things a dedicated dog owner is ready, willing and able to spend money on, brushing a dog's teeth is where most people draw the line. There are few hard science research studies done on this topic, but most estimates put tooth-brushing dog owners at somewhere between 2 percent and 5 percent of the dog-owning population. The other 95 percent to 98 percent, on the other hand, can't bring themselves to reach into their best friend's mouth with an eye toward serious plaque removal.
In fairness, Americans have at best a mixed track record on maintaining their own teeth, let alone that of their dogs. Though the majority of Americans report brushing twice a day (70 percent), 37 percent also admit that they have gone at least two days without brushing their teeth at least once in the last year. A minority of us — 40 percent — are regular flossers, and 20 percent of Americans don't floss at all.
Maintaining proper oral hygiene in a dog is much harder than it is in a human, since dogs don't like the experience at all and really can't be made to see the value of proper tooth care through patient explanation. A dog will never understand why you are forcibly brushing its teeth — which is why most of us skip the tooth brushing. Even vets, who recommend daily brushing as critical to a dogs longterm health, confess that they don't always get to it.
"I know exactly how dental disease affects pets," Veterinarian Andy Roark wrote for the popular Vet Street blog. "Unfortunately, the problem with my being a real person — one with a working spouse, young children, two jobs and a few hobbies — is that what I know to be 'the best thing' and what I actually do at home are occasionally not the same."
And dental disease is actually a serious medical issue for pets — even pets that are otherwise well cared for and loved. According to Roark, the tartar and plaque that build up on a dog's teeth are bacteria breeding grounds that can damage the underlying structure of a dog's mouth and, in time, gain access to the bloodstream and start doing damage to organ systems like the heart, lungs and brain. And it is not just a problem for older dogs — by age 3, 80 percent of dogs have detectable periodontal disease.
So how to bridge the gap between something basically no one wants to do — brush a dog's teeth — and the fact that doing it is medically necessary? To that there are a variety of answers ranging from just doing it with a toothbrush to paying a veterinarian to sedate a dog for periodic tooth cleaning.
The team at Bristly — a startup that hopes to revolutionize pet dental care — has a simpler, though unorthodox, solution: What if dogs would just brush their own teeth?
"When I lost my childhood dog Mickey to oral disease, it inspired me to come up with this solution. I developed Bristly as a brushing stick so dogs could take care of their own oral health," explains Petros Dertsakyan, creator of Bristly.
The design of the brush is fairly simple. An upright standing dog toy held in place by the dog itself, the brush is basically a natural rubber toy covered in bristles that contains a central cavity for toothpaste. The rubber is meat-flavored, which attracts the dog to chew away on the Bristly stick — dosing themselves with toothpaste and essentially using the bristles of the device to brush their own teeth.
The toy itself is not designed for continuous, or even at-will use; Bristly brushes are meant to be used under the supervision of the dog's owner for about five minutes a day. Any longer than that, according to Bristly, and the toothbrush runs the risk of worsening the problem it is meant to solve, by causing gum disease through irritation related to over-brushing.
Will Bristly be the future of pet oral hygiene?
It's probably too soon to say, since this startup is still in the Kickstarter phase of development, sending $19 toothbrushes to consumers who pledge support. But according to Dertsakyan, Bristly's small base of early adopters are a happy group of customers.
"In the last six months over 50,000 pet parents have tried our first version and love it. Their feedback has helped us further develop the product to meet all dogs' needs."
And that Kickstarter campaign has been much more successful than expected. Bristly started out looking to raise $15,000. To date it has raised over $204,000 — and there are still 24 days left in the campaign.
Because pet parents will do almost anything for their dogs, even if brushing teeth is where they draw the line, they are more than happy, it seems, to train dogs to do their own brushing.