Why It’s Important
Brushing your dog’s teeth isn’t just about fresh breath. It’s an essential part of good oral care, and good oral care is important to your dog’s overall health. Although most people aren’t aware of it, periodontal, or gum disease is a common, serious problem in dogs. Yet brushing your dog’s teeth can prevent it! Veterinarians estimate that 85 percent of dogs over five years of age suffer from periodontal disease, which develops when food particles and bacteria collect along the gum line and form soft deposits called plaque. Over time, the plaque turns into rock-hard tartar. If tartar isn’t removed from your dog’s teeth, it will eventually inflame his gums. As the inflamed gums begin to separate from the teeth, pockets form in which more bacteria grow, causing periodontal disease to worsen. At this point, your dog can experience severe pain, lose teeth, form abscesses in his mouth and develop a bacterial infection that can spread through the bloodstream to the kidneys, liver, heart or brain. Periodontal disease is irreversible, so now is a great time to get started on a regular oral-care regimen for your dog. Prevention is the key to keeping him healthy and happy.
When to Do It
It’s ideal to brush your dog’s teeth daily, just like you brush your own. However, if your schedule doesn’t allow that, aim to brush your dog’s teeth at least several times a week.
Smaller dogs and brachycephalic breeds—dogs with flat or short, broad snouts, like pugs and bulldogs—may need more frequent brushing. Their teeth are often crowded together, which allows more plaque to accumulate and increases their risk of developing periodontal disease.
What You’ll Need
Choose a tool that you’re comfortable using. Pet stores carry toothbrushes for dogs as well as small, plastic brushes that fit on your finger and special dental sponges. If these products don’t appeal to you or your dog, just wrap a piece of clean gauze around your finger instead.
Purchase toothpaste made for dogs from a pet store or from your veterinarian. Pet toothpaste comes in a variety of flavors, including liver, mint, chicken and peanut butter. You may need to experiment with a few flavors to find out which one your dog prefers. Avoid using human toothpaste on your dog’s teeth. Keep in mind that your dog will end up swallowing a lot of the paste during brushing sessions, and ingesting a paste made for people might upset his stomach.
How to Brush Your Dog’s Teeth
Your dog will probably find the sensation of you poking around in his mouth strange. It might make him nervous at first. However, you can make tooth brushing more pleasant for your dog if you focus on doing two things:
- Take it slow. Introduce tooth brushing in small steps so that your dog doesn’t get overwhelmed and upset.
- Teach your dog that good things always happen when he gets his teeth brushed.
Before You Start: Accustom Your Dog to Having His Muzzle and Mouth Handled
Fingers are fine Before using a brush or paste, teach your dog that tooth brushing can be fun by first getting him used to having your fingers in his mouth. First, dip your finger into something your dog likes, such as chicken broth or peanut butter. Let your dog lick your finger, and as he does, gently rub your fingers against the sides of his teeth and gums. As you do, also lift his lips as you might when brushing. Repeat this exercise twice a day for two or three days. Occasionally use your dog’s toothpaste on your finger so he gets used to its smell and taste.
Open wide When your dog seems comfortable with your fingers in his mouth for a few seconds at a time, teach him to let you handle his muzzle and open his mouth. First, prepare a handful of delicious treats. Because you want your dog to love it when you handle his mouth and brush his teeth, choose tasty chicken, beef, cheese or hot dog. After gathering the treats, sit down somewhere quiet with your dog. Speak softly to him as you do the following exercise:
- Gently put one hand underneath your dog’s chin, letting his head rest in your hand. Then put the other hand over the top of your dog’s muzzle, as though you were going to open his mouth. Instead of doing that, just release his muzzle and immediately give him one of the special treats you prepared. Repeat 8 to 10 times, and end the session. Practice this exercise for two or three days, a couple of times a day.
- Repeat Step 1, but instead of releasing your dog right after you take hold of his muzzle, use the hand on top of his snout to gently lift his lips. Keep his lips lifted, with his teeth exposed, for just two seconds. Then let go of your dog’s muzzle, praise him enthusiastically and feed him a treat. Repeat 8 to 10 times, and then end the session. Practice Step 2 for two or three days, at least three times per day.
- Now you’re going to get your dog used to letting you hold his muzzle and look at his teeth longer. Repeat Step 2 as described above—but slowly increase the time you hold your dog’s muzzle in your hand and lift his lips. Progress gradually over a week or so. Start with three seconds. Then, the next day, try five. The next day, try eight, and so on. As before, try to have a couple of short sessions per day. When you can hold your dog’s muzzle and examine his teeth for 10 seconds, you’re ready for Step 4.
- Position your hands as before—one under your dog’s bottom jaw and the other over the top of his muzzle. Instead of just lifting his lips, open your dog’s mouth about an inch. Right after opening his mouth, touch your finger inside his mouth for a second and then release your dog and give him a treat. Repeat 8 to 10 times. Practice Step 4 for a day or two, aiming for at least three short sessions per day. Each session, try opening your dog’s mouth just a little wider until you can hold it open wide enough to see your dog’s back teeth. (Be careful not to open your dog’s mouth so wide that you cause pain or discomfort.)
- Over a week or so, gradually increase the time you hold your dog’s mouth open and keep your finger inside along his teeth and gums. As you did in Step 3, go slowly and deliver plenty of praise and treats. As long as your dog continues to seem comfortable and relaxed, you can hold his mouth open one or two seconds longer each day. When you can hold his mouth open for about 10 seconds, you’re ready to start brushing.
If your dog struggles during any of the exercises above, gently but firmly continue to hold his muzzle until he stops. As soon as he stops struggling and holds still for one second, release his muzzle. You may have progressed a little too fast, so go back and practice the previous step for a few more days. When he seems comfortable at that step for two or three days, try moving to the next step again.
After you’ve collected supplies—your dog’s toothbrush, sponge or gauze, his special toothpaste and a few tasty treats—take your dog to a quiet, calm area. You might need to keep your dog on a leash to limit his movement during the brushing session. If you do, you can tie the leash to a heavy piece of furniture in order to keep your hands free. It’s okay to keep the leash short, like three feet—but not too short. Make sure there’s enough slack in the leash so that your dog can sit or lie down comfortably while you brush his teeth. Then follow the steps below to start brushing. (The steps are the same, regardless of the brushing tool you choose. We’ll assume you’re using a toothbrush.)
- Put some toothpaste on the brush. Placing one hand over the top of your dog’s muzzle, gently lift his lips. With your other hand, brush or rub a few teeth. Your dog can keep his jaws closed at this point. Just focus on cleaning the outer surfaces of his teeth and gums. After only two or three seconds of brushing, stop and release your dog’s muzzle. If he did a great job holding still while you brushed, reward him with a tasty treat. Then end the brushing session.
- Repeat Step 1 two or three times a day for one to two weeks. Each day, slowly increase the time you spend brushing. Start with three seconds. Then, the next day, try five. The next day, try eight, and so on. Eventually you’ll be able to brush the outer surfaces of all your dog’s teeth during a single brushing session.
- When your dog seems comfortable about you brushing all his teeth while his jaws are closed, you can start to open his mouth. Gently place one hand over the top of your dog’s muzzle and open his mouth, like you practiced before. With your other hand, reach in your dog’s mouth with the brush. Brush a few teeth for a couple of seconds. Then release your dog’s muzzle, praise him and feed him a treat. Repeat three to five times for about three days. Try to practice a couple of times a day.
- At this point, you can start alternating between brushing the outer and inner surfaces of your dog’s teeth during brushing sessions. It’s best to keep brushing sessions short (aim for about five minutes), but brush daily if possible. Remember to continue to reward your dog with tasty treats or his favorite game after you brush his teeth. If you do, he’ll come to love brushing sessions because good things always happen afterwards.
As you did during the handling exercises above, gently but firmly hold your dog’s muzzle if he struggles during brushing. As soon as he stops struggling and holds still for one second, release his muzzle. You may have progressed a little too fast for him, so make brushing sessions a little shorter for a while until he seems comfortable again.
- Although periodontal disease primarily affects dogs over five years old, it’s best get your dog used to regular brushing when he’s young. If you have a puppy, start now to make it easy for both of you as he matures.
- Take your dog to the veterinarian for an annual checkup, which should include an oral exam. As your dog ages, your vet may recommend professional cleaning, which is usually done under anesthesia.
- Feeding your dog hard kibble and treats instead of canned food alone can help prevent the build-up of harmful plaque. Providing plenty of edible chews, such as rawhide, pig ears and natural bones, as well as hard, inedible chew toys, like Nylabones® and Greenies® Smart Chews™, can also reduce plaque on your dog’s teeth. (Be sure to closely supervise your dog when you give him a new chew toy to make sure he doesn’t accidentally choke. Immediately see your veterinarian if he consumes part of an inedible chew toy.)
- Some people choose to learn how to scale or scrape their dogs’ teeth using a special dental tool that’s similar to instruments used by human dentists. This can be very beneficial to your dog, but it takes special training. If you’re interested in learning how to scale your dog’s teeth, ask your veterinarian to demonstrate.
- If you want help teaching your dog to let you brush his teeth, consult a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT). Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to locate a CPDT near you.
- If, at any time, your dog shows signs of fear or aggression—such as trembling, trying to get away or hide, drooling, panting, whining, freezing, staring, growling, snarling, snapping or biting—contact a qualified professional for help. Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to locate a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a veterinary behaviorist (Diplomate of the College of Veterinary Behavior, Dip ACVB). If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but be sure the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience in treating aggression, since this expertise is not required for CPDT certification.
- If you’d like information about other important parts of a good grooming routine, please see our articles, Grooming Your Dog, Bathing Your Dog and Trimming Your Dog’s Nails.
What NOT to Do
- Do not use products made for humans to brush your dog’s teeth. Human toothbrushes and toothpastes can be harmful to your dog.
- Do not try to overpower your dog or punish him if he resists tooth brushing. Forcing him to submit will only make him more reluctant to let you brush his teeth—and it might even cause defensive aggression. Instead, slowly and gently accustom your dog to tooth brushing using the methods described above.