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Owner brushing a dog‘s teeth

The essentials

  • Periodontal or gum disease is a leading health problem in dogs — Just like humans, gum disease can cause other serious health conditions like heart, liver, and kidney issues.
  • Never use human toothpaste on your dog — Human toothpaste often contains xylitol, which is toxic to dogs, and other harmful ingredients.
  • Brushing helps protect your dog from pain — Brushing can help prevent your dog from the pain of future dental issues like periodontal disease.

It’s never too late to learn how to brush your dog’s teeth.

Brushing your dog’s teeth offers health benefits beyond just keeping their teeth clean. The accumulation of plaque and tartar can lead to kidney, liver, and heart disease.

Make sure you’re only using dog-safe toothpaste (these don’t have the toxic ingredient xylitol) and a dog toothbrush, and have ample patience when introducing the steps to your dog.

How to brush your dog’s teeth in 5 steps

Step 1: Be patient

Introducing any new activity into your dog’s routine can be hard. It’s going to take time for your dog to get used to a toothbrush moving around in their mouth. Choose a time when they’re calm and relaxed, not when they’re already anxious. Try to work in small steps and work up to brushing. Don’t expect it to happen on the first try, first day, or all at once.

Step 2: Introduce the toothbrush and toothpaste

When finding a toothbrush, you’ll want to use one specifically made for dogs. Dog toothbrush bristles are softer and angled a certain way for a dog’s mouth. They usually have long handles, which work well for larger dog’s mouths. Another kind is finger brushes. These work well for smaller dogs. Always use a safe dog toothpaste formulated specifically for dogs.

🚨Never use toothpaste for humans when brushing your pet’s teeth. Human toothpaste can contain dog-toxic ingredients like xylitol and other harmful ingredients like fluoride, parabens, and sulfates.

Step 3: Ease into the process

Teeth brushing is a big change for your dog. Take it slow, and don’t try to rush into things — this will be the best way to make it a positive experience. Slowly introduce your dog to the sensation by using light pressure to rub your finger along their gums and teeth. 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: Try brushing

Once your dog starts to get more comfortable and used to you feeling around and opening their mouth, you can try brushing. Brush with a light hand in small circular motions with the bristles at a 45-degree angle. Doing so helps to make sure you’re getting the gum line and plaque on the teeth.

If your dog seems okay with brushing, try a daily brushing of a few teeth. Some initial slight bleeding is okay.

🚨If you notice more severe bleeding, that could indicate gum disease or that you’re brushing too hard. Contact your vet if this continues to occur.

Step 5: Treat time

As you brush your dog’s teeth, make sure to reassure them that they’re a good dog. Let them know what you’re doing and give them treats throughout the process. After brushing or trying to brush, give them lots of positive reinforcement — pets, hugs, kisses, and treats — and always make sure to end on a positive note.

Alternatives to brushing your dog’s teeth

If your dog just isn’t into teeth brushing, there are other alternatives to help improve your dog’s dental hygiene. In fact, what your dog chews factors into how healthy their teeth and gums are. You can try things like dental-specific dog food, dog chews, dental spray, and chew toys.

Dental dog food

Dry food can actually remove tartar buildup. When a dog crunches down on dry pieces, it scrapes plaque off their teeth. Additionally, certain types of dog food are formulated with dental health in mind. These foods tend to be a certain size and have certain ingredients that help improve oral health by preventing plaque and tartar buildup.

There are also people-safe dog 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 chew.

Dental chews

Dog dental chews are another great way to improve your dog’s oral health. Similar to tooth-friendly foods like dry dog food, these treats help minimize and remove plaque from your dog’s teeth as they gnaw on them, which may prevent tartar accumulation.

Dental chews are an easy way to give your dog a fun treat while keeping their mouth healthy and improving their breath. The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) has a list of chews to “chew-s” from, backed by clinical data.

Dental spray

Dental sprays are another alternative to teeth brushing — especially if your dog isn’t into it. These sprays can help improve your dog’s breath with a simple spray. They reduce the bacteria that contribute to plaque, making it harder for bacteria and foodstuffs to stick to teeth.

Even if they won’t let you spray it in their mouth, you can spray it on their chew toys. They offer a quick and pretty effortless way to improve your dog’s dental health.

Chew toys

Chew toys can also help keep your dog’s teeth clean. Aside from keeping boredom at bay, chewing naturally helps scrape plaque off their teeth. Chewing also helps keep dogs mentally stimulated, especially when you incorporate different types of chew toys.

Veterinary teeth cleanings

If your dog is prone to plaque and tartar buildup, your veterinarian will likely suggest regular dental cleanings. These cleanings are the only way to remove hard-to-reach plaque and tartar on the teeth and below the gums. They also act as a preventative to identify dental issues that may go unnoticed.

While brushing your dog’s teeth and these alternatives can help slow down dental disease, they cannot stop it completely. Regular teeth cleanings at your vet are the only way to treat it.

What happens if I don’t brush my dog’s teeth?

Brushing your dog’s teeth can help prevent some scary things that can affect their health. Gingivitis , or inflammation of the gums, is the first sign that plaque is beginning to accumulate behind the gum line. It may eventually result in periodontitis , a dangerous gum infection that can cause tooth decay and loss and even break and destroy the jaw bone .

Besides tooth loss, increased inflammation can cause bacteria to enter the bloodstream and cause infections in other parts of the body. Similarly, as in humans, poor dental hygiene is linked to kidney, liver, and heart disease .

Symptoms and complications

Oftentimes, tooth pain in dogs is only noticeable when a veterinarian applies pressure near the tooth’s root. It can be more difficult to diagnose since many dogs with pain, particularly dental pain, usually still eat and behave normally.

Common symptoms of gum disease can include:

  • Bleeding gums
  • Problems picking up food
  • Bad breath
  • Bumps or swelling in or near their mouth
  • Leaving spots of blood around the home environment
  • Not wanting you to touch their head or face
  • Nasal discharge

If your dog has discolored teeth, this could also be a sign of something serious. Contact your vet if you are concerned about your dog’s mouth.

Dental health is just as important for your dog as it is for pet owners. If you have pets in your home, dogs or cats, consider adding tooth brushing or dental alternatives into their routine. It can save your pet’s life.

Frequently asked questions

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

Take the process slowly. Try restarting and getting your dog used to the idea. Make sure to give lots of positive reinforcement, like pets, telling them how good they are, and don’t forget, lots of treats. This way, your dog forms a strong association between having their teeth brushed and a reward.

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

Yes! Professional dental cleanings are the only way to get below the gum. But, 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 have other issues that can only be addressed by a professional.

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

Brushing your dog’s teeth every day is the best-case scenario. Try to do it as often as you can and make it part of their routine. If you can, do it twice a day, and aim for a minimum of three times a week. But again, start out slow, and don’t force it. Keep things positive.

Do dental dog chews really work?

Yes, they do! They typically contain certain ingredients and enzymes that help break down bacteria, and make it harder for bacteria to stick. Additionally, the act of chewing inherently helps remove plaque and tartar.

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

Halitosis, or 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.

Is it too late to brush dogs’ teeth?

It’s never too late to start brushing your dog’s teeth!

Can you brush dogs’ teeth with human toothpaste?

No, you should never brush your dog’s teeth with human toothpaste. Human toothpaste can contain toxic ingredients like xylitol and other harmful additives. Only use dog-friendly toothpaste specifically formulated for dogs.