Brushing a Dog’s Teeth: Sparky’s Guide
We all know we’re supposed to brush our teeth twice a day for optimal dental health, and most of us do. Those of us who are really conscientious even floss daily.
Yet when it comes to the dental health of our best pals, many pet parents aren’t sure how to approach Fido’s fangs — or didn’t realize we should be brushing them in the first place!
When it comes to brushing a dog’s teeth, it’s not quite as simple as telling your pup to open wide. Yet with preparation, patience and persistence, it is possible to get your pup to tolerate or even enjoy the experience!
Why is brushing a dog’s teeth so important?
Neglecting your dog’s teeth can lead to the same dental issues that your own teeth are susceptible to — except your pup can’t necessarily tell you if something hurts!
Unbrushed teeth tend to turn yellow and smelly as plaque and tartar builds up. If dental disease progresses further, it leads to gingivitis (swollen gums) and cavities. Your dog’s rotten teeth will ultimately need to be surgically removed. This requires anesthesia and is therefore a very expensive procedure.
Painful teeth also make it difficult for your dog to chew, so your pal may stop eating and lose weight rapidly. Periodontal disease can even lead to heart, kidney or liver disease if the bacteria get into your dog’s bloodstream!
In short, canine dental disease is about more than “dog breath” — it impacts your dog’s total health and overall wellbeing. It’s also shockingly common. According to Veterinary Dental Services:
“Statistics show that by the age of three, 80% of dogs will have some kind of oral disease. That means that out of the almost 90 million dogs in the United States, 72 million have oral disease.”
Now that’s a lot of rotten teeth!!
It’s clear that your dog’s dental health is important, but you may wonder if brushing a dog’s teeth is really the only way to address it. Products designed to reduce tartar buildup on your dog’s teeth do exist, such as dental chews or water additives, but veterinarians agree that those alone are not enough.
So there’s really no good substitute for brushing a dog’s teeth — and you will inevitably end up paying more in the long run if you don’t stay on top of this crucial aspect of your dog’s care.
What you’ll need for brushing a dog’s teeth
There are a few supplies you’ll want to gather before you get started with brushing a dog’s teeth. First up: Dog-safe toothpaste!
It’s extremely important to never use human toothpaste on any four-legged pal. The formulation of a dog-safe toothpaste is quite different, because the pH of a dog’s mouth isn’t the same as ours. Also, dogs don’t know to spit out toothpaste instead of swallowing it, so their toothpaste has to be non-foaming and safe to swallow. And the final reason why you should never try to brush your dog’s teeth with human toothpaste: many human toothpastes contain the artificial sweetener xylitol, which is toxic to dogs!
It’s also not recommended to use baking soda to brush your pup’s teeth. While baking soda may work fine as a substitute for human toothpaste, it’s the wrong pH for dogs and can cause them digestive distress when swallowed. (And most dogs hate the taste anyway!)
In short, stick to dog-safe toothpaste! Nowadays it’s available in many different flavors, such as malt, beef or poultry, so you’re sure to find one that your pup likes.
The second supply you’ll need is a dog-safe toothbrush. There are toothbrushes specially designed to be a convenient shape for cleaning your canine’s canines, and there’s also finger brushes if that’s easier for you. But don’t worry if all you have is the toothpaste to get started — you’ll probably just be using your index finger at first anyway.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, you’re going to want to keep a bag or two of your pup’s favorite treats on hand to reward them for being such a good boy or girl!
How to brush a dog’s teeth
When brushing a dog’s teeth, the first step is to pick a time when your dog is quiet and calm. This will usually be in the evening as the family’s energy levels are winding down; perhaps even when Fido looks like he’s contemplating a nap. What you don’t want to do is try brushing the teeth of a wiggly dog who only wants to play!
To keep your dog feeling relaxed, it’s important to stay calm yourself. Your pal can pick up on how you’re feeling — so if you’re nervous about how this is going to go, Fido will be, too. Take plenty of pauses for pets and praise throughout this process. The goal is to give off the impression that this whole activity is no big deal.
To begin with, put a little dollop of canine toothpaste on your finger. Let your dog sniff it and lick it until it’s clear they are intrigued by the taste. Then, gently rub one of your dog’s teeth — just one! — and stop. Go back to letting your pup lick your finger for a few seconds…and then rub that tooth again.
Keep it going and rub your dog’s teeth as much as they will allow, but always pause what you’re doing well before Fido starts getting distressed. Once using your finger is acceptable to your pup, you can then switch to a finger brush or a handheld dog-safe toothbrush. Whichever you use, the goal is to brush in small circles over your pup’s teeth and gums at a 45 degree angle.
Light bleeding from your dog’s gums is normal, especially when you first get started. But if there’s heavy or excessive bleeding, stop. You may need to take your dog in for a professional cleaning first so you can start the brushing process from a “clean slate.”
You may not be able to get to your dog’s back teeth until they are more used to the routine, and that’s okay! Even once your dog is comfortable with the process, remember that there’s no need to scrub for ages. Two or three minutes of light brushing is all you really need, especially if you keep up with it daily.
As you’re brushing, inspect your dog’s mouth thoroughly to check for cracked teeth, abscesses or yellow spots. (Or, truly horrible breath — which you’re sure to notice right away!). These are all signs that you need to stop and check with your veterinarian for an assessment.
Above all, make sure to keep things positive! If your dog starts getting upset or you get frustrated — stop!
Keeping this a positive experience for both of you is more important than perfectly polishing every tooth. Aim for the long-term goal of your dog getting more and more comfortable with you brushing their teeth, not the short-term goal of getting it all done today. Lots of pauses, petting, praise and treats will go a long way towards making Fido a happy pup!
Try to make brushing your dog’s teeth a daily habit, even just for a minute or two. If that’s not feasible, remember that every little bit helps. Even a couple times per week or a few times per month is better than nothing!
What else can you do to improve your dog’s dental health?
In addition to brushing your dog’s teeth as often as you can, there are a few more key ways to maintain your dog’s dental health.
Your pup’s diet plays a major part in how quickly tartar builds up on their teeth. Excess sugars from foods that are heavy in corn syrup and grains contribute to rapid buildup. Therefore, one way to reduce tartar on your dog’s teeth is to make sure they are on a healthy grain free diet.
And that applies to your dog’s treats, as well. It’s just like the warnings dentists give kids about eating too much candy — too many sugary dog biscuits can give your pup cavities, too! By replacing sugary ingredients with clean protein, like fresh and delicious freeze-dried minnows, you can drastically reduce tartar buildup and keep Fido’s teeth as white as possible.
Another important step you can take is to keep up with your dog’s vet visits and x-rays. Many dental problems start below the gumline and are not visible right away, but can be spotted on an x-ray and addressed before they lead to more trouble (and more expenses!) down the road.
Finally, to really stay on top of your dog’s dental well-being, there are times when you’ve got to call in the professionals. A professional dental cleaning to scrape all those hard-to-reach places your pup won’t let you get to is recommended once a year for most dogs. If your dog utterly refuses to let you brush their teeth despite your best efforts, then you may want to up that to twice a year.
When it comes to brushing a dog’s teeth, the benefits aren’t just aesthetic. Your dog’s toothy grin is important to their overall health and wellbeing. Daily or at least weekly tooth-brushing is one of the best things you can do to maintain Fido’s happy smile!