It’s National Pet Dental Health Month, and if you aren’t doing something proactive to keep your dog’s teeth clean, I can nearly guarantee you that your dog will suffer for it. Some dogs hate teeth brushing, and if you have a dog like that, this article is especially for you.
If you Google “pet teeth,” you’ll get hundreds of thousands of responses, with many of the links sharing facts about canine (and feline) teeth. Since this is a reality-based blog, we’ll spare you what you don’t need to know and cut to what you do.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) President, Dr. Ted Cohn, recently stated that although daily tooth brushing is advised for dogs and cats, only 2 percent of dog owners follow through. In addition, 65 percent of dogs with stage one periodontal disease often go untreated.
Staggering, isn’t it?
The most common reasons I hear people tell me they don’t brush their dog’s teeth regularly include:
My dog hates it and puts up a fight or fuss
I don’t have the time
They get kibble and/or dog biscuits, so I don’t need to brush
And now the reality:
You can slowly train a dog to accept, and even enjoy, teeth brushing and oral care.
You can make the time if it means saving your dog’s life is important.
Eating kibble and expecting it to clean a dog’s teeth is the equivalent of eating hard pretzels and expecting them to keep a human’s teeth clean.
Got an uncooperative dog or have a dog who has never had their teeth brushed? Here are reality-based tips to help: (and new puppy parents, this will help you, too)
Tip: Get your puppy used to having their mouths and teeth touched early.
Always have a veterinarian check your dog’s teeth at least once a year and prior to starting any home-based dental regimen. If your dog has broken teeth, periodontal disease, gum problems, or anything else going on within the mouth, you don’t want to go poking around with a toothbrush or dentifrice: Dogs in pain can and will snap or bite.
Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. I am also an Etsy and Chewy affiliate.
Lose the Toothbrush
Don’t start with a toothbrush. For a few days to a week, simply accustom your dog to the idea of your finger(s) in his or her mouth. Lift the dog’s lip and praise him for allowing you to do so. Don’t do this when the dog is sleeping or just finished eating.
Wait until the dog is relaxed, close by, and you have a few treats available to reward. Do this 2 to 3 times a day if possible for a week. Never scold a dog for not cooperating. Positive reinforcement is key. The goal is to make the entire experience rewarding. In fact, praise him like he just won Best in Show at Westminster. Reward with a treat.
Get Some Gauze
Purchase some inexpensive gauze online and gradually begin to rub your dog’s teeth with a dry gauze pad. Repeat the same behaviors as you did in the previous step. Reward, praise, choose a calm time, etc. Once the dog accepts this behavior, dampen the gauze pad with warm water (not cold, as it may irritate the dog’s teeth and gums).
The goal is to get the dog used to having dental care at home performed without making him nervous in the process.
Move from dampened gauze to gauze with some dog-friendly toothpaste applied to it. If this seems like too much work, remember that you are conditioning the dog to like the process of teeth brushing.
Alternately, you can purchase pre-treated dental wipes. These soft textured wipes are infused with ingredients like baking soda that help control bacteria and reduce the accumulation of dental plaque.
Use the same techniques you did in the previous steps. Praise, reward, and ensure you are being happy and not struggling with the dog to do this. Yelling at him or scolding with “stop it” or “no, Rex” will defeat the purpose.
If you were a 2-year-old child making a first trip to the dentist, how would you want to be treated? Now envision your dog in that dental chair: This is all new to him.
For Not So Happy Dogs
Assuming that your dog is adjusting to having the above steps performed, it’s time to tackle the toothbrush.
If your dog has not been accepting up to this point, at the very least, try to keep the dental wipes routine going. Some dogs will just completely not allow a pet parent to probe their mouth with anything more than a gauze. The motion and abrasion provided by a toothbrush are crucial to help rid a dog’s teeth of tartar and plaque, which leads to periodontal disease and worse. More about that shortly.
Some sort of dental care is better than no dental care. At this stage, do what any frustrated pet parent would do: Grab the leash, your dog, and do some retail therapy. Involve your dog in picking up some dental treats he can enjoy.
At least once a week, my dog and I make a trek to our local PetSmart and stock up on goodies, check out the latest offerings, and this weekend was no different. We also shop online.
Some dogs love to chew on a product like DENTASTIX. The “X” shape of the DENTASTIX helps to get down to a dog’s gumline while chewing, plus they are clinically proven to help fight nasty tartar and plaque. No matter what size dog you have: From toy to large, there is a size available. Always use supervision when administering any sort of treat to your dog to prevent choking.
If cute shapes and nubbies of a treat are more your things, check out the Whimzees line of dental chews available as well. Cuteness alert: The alligator-shaped chews make great gifts or “paw-ty” favors for dog friends, too.
Assuming that your dog is adjusting to having the above steps performed, it’s time to tackle the toothbrush. We use toddler toothbrushes on our dog’s teeth. You can start with the smaller ones for puppies or finger toothbrushes.
Don’t stress yourself or your dog when reaching this stage: Decide to do one side of the mouth in the morning and one in the evening. Always praise, always reward with treats, and always make this a positive experience.
Like riding a bike, if you still need the “training wheels,” that’s okay: Stick with the gauze until you can graduate. Some folks may want to try using a finger toothbrush designed specifically to stick to your fingertip. There is a right way and a wrong way to hold the dog’s jowls to brush.
Tools of the Trade
A child’s toothbrush is best for newcomers and dogs with smaller mouths. A fingertip toothbrush is also acceptable for starters.
Never use human toothpaste on a dog. Why? They can’t spit, and there are ingredients in many human toothpastes that can make a dog sick or worse.
Ask your dog’s veterinarian for a doggie toothpaste recommendation. The one we use is CET vanilla mint, but there are several flavors available. Allow the dog to lick the toothpaste off your fingertip before doing any probing. You may need to put toothpaste on a small brush and simply do a few teeth for a few days. Remember, this is a process. The goal is to reduce plaque but NOT induce stress or create a dog who lives in fear of your next move.
Timing and Technique
Congrats! If you made it this far, you are on your way to your dog living a lot longer than he would have without a dental routine in place.
Decide when you are going to brush your dog’s teeth. I recommend doing this once a week until the dog is used to it. We brush a minimum of once daily in our household, usually at night. We also use dental wipes intermittently for good oral hygiene.
According to Dr. Patrick Mahaney, whose dog has an immune system disease, he brushes his teeth daily so the dog has very little infection or inflammation in his mouth.
Never stand above your dog, so she or he does not feel threatened or alarmed. You want the dog relaxed, so try sitting behind her, next to her, or kneeling down in front of her.
Place a small amount of toothpaste on the brush and place the toothbrush at a 45-degree angle against the teeth and slowly brush. Brush in small circles, getting top and bottom on each side. If you are unable to comfortably get the toothbrush behind the tooth (where plaque hides, too), use a finger toothbrush to probe the delicate area.
Dog dental treats are good for getting behind the teeth, too.
Note: Ongoing or heavy bleeding may indicate you are brushing too hard or can be signs of periodontal disease, so seek veterinary assistance. Your vet is also a fantastic resource to show you proper in-person techniques.
Brush a few teeth at a time, working up to more each day. You may need the assistance of a family member or friend until the dog gets used to things. Here’s how we brush our teeth. Note the position, the pose, the way I gently handle my dog’s jowls, and the motion of the toothbrush, which takes us to our next step.
Length of Time
It takes me about 60 seconds to completely brush my dog’s teeth. After we do one side of his mouth, he gets a treat, and then after the other side, he gets another. Our dog even knows “time for teeth” as a catchphrase, and he gets excited because happy times are ahead. Aim for a minute to two minutes to get the brushing complete, but keep in mind that is a goal. You might need to do a few seconds at a time for weeks at a clip.
Positive reinforcement is key. No scolding. No getting frustrated.
Happy as a Clam
Keep the mood light and happy throughout the process. Tell your dog what a good boy or good girl she is. Your body language and mood will dictate how your dog reacts, too.
Dental care doesn’t end with brushing. There are a variety of doggie dental rinses available that some pet parents add to their dog’s water. Be certain none of them contain Xylitol, as this is a toxic substance.
Dog kisses are one the best parts of my day, so to keep my dog’s teeth clean and breath fresh, the above tips serve me well.
As an aside, our first Cocker Spaniel never needed a professional dental cleaning under anesthesia, and she lived to be one week shy of 15 years old. Our diligence in brushing and keeping an eye on her teeth and gums are the direct reasons why she had great teeth and gums.
Bonus: By knowing what the normal anatomy of your dog’s teeth and gums is, you will be better able to ascertain what “abnormal” is. Our dog’s groomer tells us that at least once or twice a month he discovers a lump or growth in a dog’s mouth when he is checking the face and oral area prior to grooming. Those lumps and growths are sometimes cancerous. Early detection is key.
It is a commitment and does take time to establish a dental care routine, but isn’t adding years on to your dog’s life worth it?
Do you have a dental care plan in place for your dog?
If you enjoyed this article, check out these related health posts: