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dog parent basics

How to properly brush your dog’s teeth

know how to brush your dog’s teeth the right way

Updated May 7, 2020

Created By

Kristen Bobst,

The essentials

  • Periodontal (gum) disease is the leading health problem in dogs. It starts in the mouth but can lead to other serious health conditions. Brush your puppy’s teeth every single day — some vets even encourage twice a day
  • Never use human toothpaste on your dog. People toothpaste often contains Xylitol, which is toxic to dogs.
  • Toothaches hurt. If you’ve ever had one, you know it’s no fun. The difference is that you can complain about it. Your dog can’t.

Doggie Toothbrushing 101

If done right, doggie toothbrushing won’t actually be anything to growl at. Throughout this whole process, use as much positive reinforcement as possible. The goal is to associate good dental hygiene with positivity and rewards.

In the beginning, it’s fine to give your dog treats at any time during this process, even in the middle of brushing. This seems weird to humans because people don’t generally chow down in the middle of their oral care routine. After your dog gets used to the process, you might not have to stop for treat breaks, but it all depends on how well your dog tolerates it.

How to brush your dog's teeth

Step 1: Prepare to be patient

We can’t stress this enough. Like teaching any dog a new trick, introducing a new activity can be hard. It will take time to get to where you want to be. Keep at it. As the wise old saying goes, “Patience is a virtue, toothpaste takes like beef. Brushy brushy brushy, doggo’s got clean teeth.”

Step 2: Introduce your dog to their poochy toothpaste

Put some of your store-bought or homemade toothpaste on your finger or on a toy. Let your pup sniff it. If all goes well, they will be on board with the flavor and will lick it off.

Step 3: Ease into the process

This new procedure is a big change for both you and your dog, so take it slow. If you’re using a finger brush, you can put it on and slowly move it around your dog’s teeth. If you plan to use a brush with a handled toothbrush, introduce your dog to the idea by using only your finger at first. Gently feel around your dog’s teeth and gums. Use your other hand to keep your dog’s muzzle from moving around too much. Never use force. If your dog becomes agitated, stop the process and start again later. Sometimes having a helper around to distract your dog is helpful.

Step 4: Start brushing

Put your doggie toothpaste on your doggie toothbrush and wet it like you would your own. The difference here is that you want to smoosh the toothpaste into the bristles as much as possible. This way, you will have more control over where it goes. The best place to start brushing is the front teeth, as they are the most sensitive. Use one hand to hold the lip away from the teeth, so you can get to the whole tooth and to the gums. Then move backward and get all sides of your dog’s teeth.

Step 4: Reward time!

You can reward your dog at any time during this process. Once teethy time is over, be sure to give your pup something extra to smile about.

Gum disease is one of the most common health issues for dogs

Gum disease, also known as periodontal disease, is an infection of the gum tissue. You’ve heard your dental hygienist warn you about it during a cleaning. It turns out that dogs have to worry about it, too — even more than humans do.

Dogs suffer from gum disease five times more often than humans do. An estimated 80% of dogs have some form of the disease by age three. Those numbers stink worse than dog breath. So, what makes it so prevalent?

🦠 Germs are to blame

Gum disease works like this: A dog eats their meal. When they’re done, their mouths are a great spot for bacteria to thrive. If the bacteria do not get cleaned out of a dog’s mouth, it can mix with food particles and saliva, a.k.a doggie slobber. This combination then forms plaque. Plaque is that whitish film that sticks to teeth.

If plaque isn’t removed by toothbrushing (or by other means), it will turn to tartar. This can happen as soon as 24 hours after a meal, according to VCA Animal Hospitals. Tartar is harder and stronger than plaque and can form above or below the gum line. Bacteria love to grow on tartar because tartar is porous.

Bacteria can nestle into the tartar and set up home. They then reproduce more bacteria. Unchecked bacterial growth leads to gingivitis, which is inflammation of the gums.

Symptoms and complications

These conditions can be very painful for your pup. When too much tatar builds up, it forces the gums away from the teeth. The tops of dogs’ teeth, the parts meant to be exposed to the elements, are covered in enamel. Below the natural gum line, teeth aren’t as protected. So, when the gums recede away from the tooth, they expose the vulnerable parts of your dog’s chompers. This can cause painful toothaches. Untreated, gingivitis can cause gum disease.

Gum disease can cause tooth rot and tooth loss. Your dog could get a more severe infection that could spread to other organs in their body. Gum disease can also lead to serious mouth conditions like weakened jawbones that could lead to fractured jaws.

If you think your dog is already at risk for gingivitis or gum disease, talk to your pup’s veterinarian as soon as possible. If your dog has any of these symptoms, it’s time for a trip to the v-e-t.

Common symptoms of gum disease include (but are not limited to):

  • bleeding gums
  • problems eating, bad breath
  • leaving spots of blood around the home environment (check toys, food, and water bowls, etc.)

Tooth and gum discoloration

If your dog has teeth that are discolored, this could be a sign of something serious. Your dog could have a dead tooth, a condition that is both painful and prone to infection. Discolored gums are also an indicator of a health problem.

✅ Healthy dog gums are bubblegum pink
👎 Unhealthy dog gums are discolored and splotchy

Discolored teeth and gums are not things that should be taken lightly. Never hesitate to make a vet appointment if you ever have any concerns about your dog’s oral health.

Smile! Gum disease is easy to prevent

We know all the talk of periodontal disease is scary, but we also know you love your dog and want the best for them. That’s why you’re here, after all. The best news is that gum disease is super preventable. 🎉 We know that brushing your dog’s teeth every day might seem like a massive commitment. With the right information and mindset, however, it can easily become part of your routine.

Finding the right toothbrush for your dog

Dog toothbrushes come in two types: Finger brushes and brushes with handles. The second type is the most similar to the typical human toothbrush. Pet toothbrushes are best because they are made with dogs’ mouths in mind. Small dogs do well with a child’s sized toothbrush. Bigger dogs can use an adult human toothbrush.

Determining which kind of brush works for you and your pup will come down to trial and error. Some people prefer finger brushes because it allows for better control. On the other hand, long-handled brushes help some pet owners reach the farthest teeth more easily. Often, both types are sold together, so you can see which your pup prefers.

Store-bought toothpaste versus DIY doggie toothpaste

Never use human toothpaste on your dog. Along with other potentially harmful ingredients, human toothpaste often includes Xylitol. Xylitol is toxic to dogs and can be lethal to them.

Fortunately, there are several great options on the market. They even come in delicious flavors, like poultry! Sure, humans might prefer minty fresh, but wouldn’t you rather your dog have ‘fowl breath’ over foul breath?

You might have to try a couple of brands of toothpaste before you find one your dog likes. Most of them fall under $10. We recommend looking for brands with the stamp of approval from the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) organization to ensure it’s a quality, vet-approved product. Also, look for the term ‘enzymatic’ when searching for a good toothpaste for your pooch. Enzymatic means that it includes enzymes that help fight bacteria.

You can also make your own doggie toothpaste at home

Some people prefer making their own products at home. Creating your own DIY doggie toothpaste allows you to control every single ingredient that goes into your puppy’s mouth. It might also save you some money. Ingredients in homemade dog toothpaste typically include a combination of the following: baking soda, broth/dissolved bouillon, coconut oil, turmeric, and sometimes cinnamon or mint leaves. One pro to this is you can choose the flavor of your toothpaste. If your pup prefers beef broth over poultry flavors, beef toothpaste it is.

👉 Read our recipe book for six kinds of fresh, tasty homemade dog toothpaste

Dental additives fight gum disease while your dog drinks

Did you know that you can help your dog’s dental health through what they drink? Yep, just as governments add fluoride to our drinking water, so too can you add helpful products to your dog’s H2O. These products typically come concentrated. You add a certain amount to your dog’s bowl. Vet-approved water additives use natural ingredients that have antibacterial and enzymatic properties.

Your dog’s diet can impact their dental health

What your dog chews factors into how healthy their teeth and gums are. Dry food can actually remove tartar build-up. When a dog crunches down on kibble, the kibble scrapes plaque and tartar off their teeth.

There are certain types of dog food that are formulated with dental health in mind. These foods tend to have kibble bites of a certain size and texture and include antioxidants for overall health.

Some dogs benefit from dental chews. Similar to tooth-friendly-foods, these treats help remove buildup from your dog’s teeth as they gnaw on them. Some treats are even enzymatic, adding a boost to your dog’s dental care regimen.

There are people foods that can help with oral care too. Carrots are a great example of this as their texture is great for removing tartar and plaque buildup while they nom down on nature’s candy.

FAQs

My dog hates getting their teeth brushed. What can I do to make the process smoother for both of us?

First, step back and take it slow. Try restarting the process and getting your dog used to the whole idea. Second, take more treat breaks. This way, your dog forms a strong association between having their teeth brushed and positive reinforcement.

If I brush my dog’s teeth, do they still need professional dental cleaning?

Like humans, each dog is different. Some people with excellent oral health habits require more dental work than others. We suggest speaking with your vet about your pet’s needs. Your dog might be fine with at-home dental care, or they might have other issues that can only be addressed by a professional. One thing is true. There is little downside to regularly brushing your dog’s teeth.

My dog still has their puppy teeth. Do I still need to brush them, or should I wait until their adult teeth come in?

Most puppies lose their baby teeth between four and six months of age. One might think, then why bother brushing them? Getting your dog used to having their teeth brushed will only make both your lives easier down the line.

Do I really have to brush my dog’s teeth every day?

Listen, we understand that this is a big ask. The short answer is: Yes, and twice daily is even better. However, don’t be discouraged if you miss a day. Don’t give up. Do the best you can and brush your dog’s teeth as often as possible. The best advice is to make it a routine, something you do at the same time each day.

Do dental dog chews really work?

They do, indeed. Be sure to buy vet-approved ones. Also, remember that dental dog chews work best in conjunction with daily brushing.

Why does my dog’s breath stink even if I brush their teeth?

Halitosis, a.k.a bad breath, can be a sign of serious health problems such as diabetes, inflammation of the throat or esophageal tube, and even cancer. While gum disease is the biggest cause of bad breath, you’ll want to talk to your dog’s vet to be sure what’s causing it.