10 Tips For Dogs Who Hate Teeth Brushing #DogDentalHealth

dog teeth

disclaimer

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)

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.

dog teeth

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.

brush dog teeth

Get Some Gauze

Purchase some inexpensive gauze at a local drug store 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.

Graduate

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 from places like PetSmart. 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.

dog toothbrush

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 is 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. Here we are checking out the dental treats:

Friday night #retailtherapy at #petsmart #dailydogkisses

A video posted by Dexter and Carol Bryant (@fidoseofreality) on

One of our dog’s favorite dental treats is the 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.

whimzees

If cute shapes and nubbies on a treat are more your thing, 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.

Toothbrush Time

Assuming that your dog is adjusting to having the above steps performed, it’s time to tackle the toothbrush.

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.

 

dog dental
Dexter eyes up the dental treats at PetSmart.

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.

dog treats
“Mom, can we get these?”

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. Dental treats like Dentastix or Whimseez 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 technique.

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 catch phrase, 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.

dog teeth brush

After Brushing

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 last 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 are, 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?

In a continuing effort to bring you the best medical advice for dogs and their parents, here’s the “flip side” of things from a veterinary tech perspective with Medicine vs. Mom. Rachel Sheppard of My Kid Has Paws explains why dental care is important in dogs.

medicine versus mom

Do you have a dental care plan in place for your dog?

If you enjoyed this article, check out these related health posts:

The Truth About Brushing a Dog’s Teeth

Add Years to Dog’s Life with Teeth Brushing

 

 

Comments

  1. These are some really great tips and info. Thanks for sharing! It’s so important to brush our dog’s teeth and to not give up on doing it. Be consistent. Practice makes perfect 🙂

  2. I appreciate all these tips! So far we rely on dental treats, but I think the idea of brushing one side in the morning and one at night might be one we can implement. With 3 dogs, there are a lot of teeth to brush!

  3. Those are all great tips! Another one that works so well for us? Our vet suggested that during the “teaching” phase of tooth brushing, we use sugar-free peanut butter, soft cheese or canned food instead of tooth paste. LOL, it sounds silly, but it worked to help Koly get cool with fingers in his mouth fast.

  4. My human has a new interest in caring for my teeth after she saw something building up on them! My teeth are nice, white, and sharp and I want to keep them that way!

  5. We have this issue filed under the same category as “my dog won’t wear a seat belt”. It is all training thing. Puppies don’t like collars and leashes, but they adjust and dogs will learn to adjust to a toothbrush and to seat belts. It is so important.

  6. Excellent tips, & what a great little shopper Dexter is! I’m starting off with the finger brush and hoping to find some liver flavored toothpaste. I’ve been able to get my finger into little Phoebe’s mouth but my Husky is not giving up w/out a fight! I trimmed my nails short so I don’t scratch the inside of their mouths. I’m ready to give it a try, although in the meantime we use DENTASTIX which make a big difference!

    • Indeed with the finger toothbrush or even the gauze. They are both great to have in the doggie supply closet, too 😉

  7. We used this method with Laika a few years back and I must say it’s spot on. The most important part was getting her used to us messing around in her mouth, especially those upper back teeth. Eventually with enough praise, encouragement, and carrots we were able to graduate to full on brushing. Now she sits patiently through it every evening like a good girl.

    • I know I am glad I did this with our last dog and now do this with Dex. Way to go with doing this with your Laika and I am sure she is such a great pooch about it. Shine on! 😉

    • That’s great to hear and that you stuck with it. Dex just fixates on the treat. I know that personally I do one side of his mouth and he gets a treat and then another side and he gets a treat. 😉

  8. I think one of our biggest takeaways so far this month is to be very diligent and purposeful with dental health care. Your analogy of pretzels makes sense. We brush and allows chews, toys, and bones, but need to plan and make certain we are hitting all points. I love your idea of taking it slow and only doing a couple of teeth if you can, this is most definitely what we had to do with our little wiggle butt puppy!

    • I almost was going to not brush for a month except with pretzel sticks but I decided against that – my dog would end up with better teeth and breath than me….and I didn’t want to scare anyone BOL

  9. We can honestly say that we don’t know if I like having my teeth brushed or not because mom has never tried, she just assumes I won’t. She tries to keep my teeth clean with Nylabones an some treats, being careful of the treats because of my food allergies. Thanks for sharing this important information! Love Dolly

    • You oughta give it a shot, and tell your mom to take these steps and then get those canines sparkly for you, Dolly. Keep us posted, okay?

    • Exactly – and dogs of any age can get used to a dental routine with patience and love involved with consistency.

  10. I think you need to come over to our house and show Indiana that the toothbrush or anything associated with brushing teeth is not scary. She runs and hides, jerks herself around and her poor little heart races. At least she likes her dental treats. I really need to work on remembering to pick up a dental gel because if it is on my finger Indiana will tolerate about 2 seconds worth of something.

    • Just go step by step and get her used to it gently and with praise. You are a fantastic dog mom, so I know she will catch on 😉

  11. Excellent strategy for getting dogs to accept having their teeth brushed! I really like that you point out that it doesn’t all have to be done at once. I think as pet parents that we sometimes forget that the goal is to get the job done, not necessarily to get it done within a certain time frame.

  12. Watch out for sorbitol in doggie toothpaste and dental wash! It’s not poisonous like xylitol but it can upset your dog’s digestive system. I discovered this when I was using a toothpaste on my foster dog. She had horrendous gas and a tummy that gurgled so loud it startled our own dog. As soon as I stopped the using the toothpaste, the gas issues disappeared. I now use warm water and a tiny bit of coconut oil instead of toothpaste.

    • Such a good point, Naomi. We have to be so careful about what our dogs ingest. How is the warm water and coconut oil working out? CET doesn’t have that btw.

  13. Wonderful post on a step-by-step process of working up to being able to easily brush your dog’s teeth. I’ve always wondered how effective the dental chews are though. Some people solely rely on them for dental health and it would be interesting to know whether they really help. Great tips! 🙂

    • If the only thing your dog will accept despite attempts is the chews, then do it. We supplement with the chews like Whimzees and love them.

  14. My Min Pin will let me do anything to her so toothbrushing is easy. The Pug on the other hand is a mess when it comes to nail clipping and brushing his teeth although it is getting better with practise. We are only 3 months in but it’s getting better and better. I am going to move on from the finger brush to the toothbrush soon. I’m looking forward to that because my finger has been chewed too many times!

    • Yes, I can only imagine how many times your finger was chewed. The finger toothbrushes are fantastic, especially for dogs with smaller mouths/jowls.

  15. Hi – my little Paolo (named after the RSPCA guy who saved him for me) is at this moment having his teeth cleaned at the vets. He is 13, was a travelling dog, we think a mix of at the very least, a Jack Russell, and Corgi? He has quite a following in the town where I live as he is so adorable….however he is a very sensitive soul (unless you’re a cat or a squirrel!) and based on experience of other untouchable body parts, that brushing his teeth would be impossible – I am so PLEASED to have found your article today – wish I’d found it 10 years ago – but I am looking forward to the challenge of eventually getting the P-dawg to love the toothbrush – your advice is invaluable regarding this project! However, I live in the UK and, as an expat American who only goes to the US every few years, if that, it is frustrating to see all the dental treat options available in the US! Mr P is also a very fussy little guy so finding a variety of dental treats is limited to Dentastix – still, am heading out now for some gauze and a finger brush and – in anticipation of eventual success – a baby toothbrush for the future! Thanks again for your timely help! Most grateful!

    • This means so much to me and I am so happy to hear that this helped your Paolo. Let us know how he is doing after the dental. I have a book of fab tips coming out, too, so stay tuned. Give your little guy a tummy rub from us.

  16. I have two cats. Both of them get their teeth brushed every night before bed. We also purchased dental wipes to use in addition to the brushing and use dental spray most days.

    Animals are very amazingly adaptable. Both of my cats are adults and one of them is 15. They both tolerate brushing well. Our older cat belonged to a relative of ours who passed away and we adopted him last year at age 14. Sadly, the older cat already had peridontal disease when we adopted him, so he will still need to be put under general anesthesia and likely will need teeth pulled.

    I get people thinking that I’m ridiculous for being diligent in brushing my cats’ teeth faithfully. But I think that brushing teeth is a tad less invasive and expensive than putting my cat under anesthesia for dental work!

    My younger cat has good teeth and my vet told me that by brushing my younger cat’s teeth regularly, he could go his whole life without needing to be put under anesthesia for dental work. That’s very important to me, because as our younger cat has a heart murmur, anesthesia could be dangerous for him.

    I don’t think that prevention of future painful and expensive problems is ever excessive. It’s good to hear from other pet owners who feel that dental health is a priority.

  17. Just adopted a 13 year old chihuahua. Her breath is horrendous! I can even get her to let me look at her teeth yet! She doesn’t care for any of the treats I’ve tried 🙁 tomorrow I will buy some meat baby food and try that. Ugh.

  18. What if I’ve already done some things wrong? For instance, holding my dog down and forcing the toothbrush in her mouth? And I started with a toothbrush. I was super nice for the most part, but a couple times got mad at her. 🙁

    Is it too late now? Or can I still condition her if I start with the first step?

    Puppy is 5 months old, and I’ve had her for 2 months.

    • Here are some things to remember:

      1) Never get mad at the dog. To a dog, you are putting a foreign object in their mouth. You need to exercise patience and be very happy and positive about it. The more you do this, the more you build the relationship with the dog and make the entire experience a happy one.

      2) Go back to gauze with dog-safe toothpaste on it. DO a finger toothbrush after that. They slip on your index finger. Be gentle. Maybe only do 2 or 3 teeth and praise and reward. I cannot stress this enough. Praise, reward.

      No, it is not too late. It may honestly take months to do this, but it will be worth it.

      I will also do a video in the next few weeks, so stay tuned. Good luck and give your puppy a tummy rub from us.

  19. I’ve been struggling w/ teeth brushing for a long time now. So after reading this, I walked away from my computer, grabbed a few treats and called both my dogs over. I was determined to complete step 1, lifting their lips & treating. It wasn’t too easy but I did it 4 or 5 times for each dog, treating right afterwards. The first time was tough, by the last time both dogs had calmed down enough to accept it. I’m going to continue Step 1 for several days. I simply have to do something, I can’t let this go any longer. Thankfully we have Dentastix around, which helps a lot & of course they love it!
    Love & Biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

  20. I have a Min Pin Terrier who is 8 months old and shes had the toothbrush introduced to her a number of times before she got her adult teeth- but then I just kind of got away from doing it. She was okay with it but now she hates it.

    I read some of the previous comments – the one about coconut oil jumped out at me and I wanted to slap myself in the forehead! LOL. My Gracie LOOOVES coconut oil.. so i just melted some coconut oil and tried the bare finger method out and it worked pretty good — Im going to keep doing this for a couple weeks and slowly introduce the finger brush and then eventually maybe she will like the actual brush. Thanks for the tip. I needed the reminder to not get frustrated t00- going from her liking it to not liking it was irritating for me. but its no ones fault but mine since I didnt keep up the routine.. So I just need to be patient. Thanks guys.

    BTW- coconut oil is an antibacterial – just like its good for OUR teeth, skin, and digestive system, its also great for dogs teeth, digestive system, and coat. I mix in 2-3 tsp every day to her food and her coat shines! Check out this website about oral health & coconut oil! 🙂

  21. I’ve continuously doubted how real the dental chews are though. . They are amusing and I love the nubbins on them,

    gustavo woltmann

  22. Even as a puppy my girl didn’t like to have her face touched too much, and then due to a few health problems she had to endure some prodding and poking on several areas, including her face, She now hates being touched anywhere on the face. It took me 2 years to desensitize her to the point I can quickly wipe her eyes and flip her lips long enough to check her teeth before she pulls away (and let’s not even talk about the apparent torture session that is grooming!). It didn’t help that she had to get a biopsy of her nose taken a couple years ago which was kinda traumatic for her, so now she’s even more wary about me touching her mouth!
    Early on I started the closest thing to dental hygiene I could manage using dental treats and using tug-o-war with her plushies as an excuse to sort of rub her teeth with the fabric while playing. It has worked fairly well. She’s 5 now, and only now I started to notice some tartar building up. I found this site while looking for ways to get rid of that tartar. Frankly, at this point I’m not sure I want to try to get her to accept the brush, even a finger brush, but maybe she’d accept rubbing coconut oil with my finger if she likes the flavor? Is coconut oil enough to remove tartar?

    • No, that would not be enough. Would she be able to accept a small finger brush and make a really big deal out of it? Like a big celebration? Just do a little at a time.

  23. With my baby pug, she has eye drops, so I tell her eyes and she knows it’s time for her eye drops. Also I have to wipe after she goes, to a recessed vulva, so I say bottom, bottom, bottom, over and over in a gentle voice. This is a new process for her. Could be worth with teeth repeated singingly while I try. I always talk to her and it makes teaching her easier, and a lofts love, good girls, and treats.

  24. Yea you make it sound sooooo easy with your rat of a dog… try it with a 90 pound pit and see if you can even get a finger in there without squirming and head jaunting

  25. Hey Carol,

    Awesome! and thanks for the detailed descriptions and pics.

    My dog is not comfortable with the toothbrush. Can you please suggest any alternatives?

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