Everything You Need to Know About Doggie Dental Hygiene

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Written by Anne-Marie Hays | Last Updated February 24th, 2020
Anne-Marie Hays is a Content Management Intern with Best Company. She enjoys comedy, hates crowds, and loves that you are reading this bio.

Closeup of dog with tongue outDo you ever wish that your best friend had better breath? What about man's best friend?

Tired of the same old stinky dog breath? As a pet owner, you know how important it is to take care of your dog's health.

When was the last time that you brushed your teeth? Probably (hopefully!) at least once within the last 24 hours.

What about your dog's teeth? 

Just because dogs are animals that came from the wild, doesn't mean that we shouldn't care for their teeth. Humans came from "the wild" too. Gum disease is huge and dentists and toothbrushes were made by us, for us. Gum disease in humans has been linked to lots of health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes

"Imagine the state of your mouth if you didn’t brush your teeth regularly," prompts Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM, who serves on the advisory board for Pet Life Today

It would be bad. 

Really bad. 

Your teeth and gums would probably hurt. Your mouth would taste bad. People around you would likely smell you coming before they saw you coming. Neglecting your oral hygiene would be gross. But what about neglecting your dog's hygiene?

"Unfortunately," Coates says, "many dogs develop tartar, gingivitis, oral infections, tooth loss, and even diseases of distant organs like the kidneys, lungs, liver, and heart as a result of poor oral hygiene."

Believe it or not, oral hygiene has a great impact on your dog's well-being, with its impact spreading much further than just teeth and breath. By the end of this article, you will understand the impact of caring for your dog's oral hygiene, how to do it, and how to make it easier in the future. 

Why is doggie dental hygiene so important?

"Maintaining good dental health can add years to your pet's life," says Dr. Gary Richter, Rover’s resident veterinarian on The Dog People Panel. "Good dental care is essential to extend your pet's life span and assure a good quality of life. Just like you, pets need to receive daily dental care at home." 

What are the risks?

"Poor dental health can lead to pain and infection in the mouth as well as having the potential for putting stress on other organs in the body like the kidneys and the heart," says Dr. Richter. "Chronic infection in the mouth can lead to bacteria entering the bloodstream and damaging other organs." 

At home dental care for your dog can help avoid these risks. It can also help improve your pet's breath and, in the long run, it can help to save you money. Ben Team, senior content editor for K9 of Mine puts it this way, "It is very important to brush your pet’s teeth. Not only will it help keep your pooch’s breath a bit more bearable, but it’ll also help prevent tooth decay and expensive visits to the doggie dentist." 

"Besides, who wants 'death breath' that comes with dirty teeth?" adds Jme Thomas, executive director of the Motley Zoo animal rescue in Redmond, Washington. "It is critical you address really bad breath because chances are there could be a really bad tooth needing removal."

You may think: Dogs are animals. Animals don't brush their teeth in the wild. Why should I have to brush my dog's teeth?" 

Think of it this way: Humans domesticated dogs. They hang out with us and we give them food and love in return. They don't eat the same things as their wild ancestors did. Their teeth are affected by the things they eat with refined sugars and acids. They also had a much shorter lifespan before we gave them food and shelter. They didn't need to worry about outliving their teeth. Our dogs do.  

When should I start brushing my dog's teeth?

Oral hygiene is important, but knowing when to start can be confusing. "It is best to begin [brushing] when a puppy is between 8 and 12 weeks of age," says Dr. Richter, "however, it is never too late."

Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM, Veterinary Consultant for doglab.com agrees: "It is best to start your dog off brushing their teeth when they are puppies. You can teach an old dog to allow their teeth to be brushed, but it is much easier to train the young dog."

No matter when you start, Dr. Coates advises that you should "Have your veterinarian examine your dog’s mouth before starting to brush teeth. If dental disease is already present, you’ll need to schedule a professional dental cleaning before toothbrushing will do much good."

Takeaway: Whether you are caring for a new pup or an old dog, it's never too late to start.

What supplies do I need to brush my dog's teeth?

Once you have decided it's time to start taking care of Sparky's teeth, you need to think about a couple things: What are you going to do it with, and how you will actually do it? 

"Brushing your dog’s teeth is not much different than brushing your own," says Team. "You’ll simply need a canine toothbrush and a dog-safe toothpaste." He explains, "you don’t want to use a human toothpaste, as your dog will likely swallow a lot of it, which could upset his stomach."

You can't just use any old toothbrush. 

"There are dog toothbrushes, which are different from human toothbrushes," explains Erin Scott, editor at Spark Paws. "They have longer handles, smaller brush heads, and softer bristles. There are also brushes that go over your finger to give you more control."

Different toothbrushes will suit different dogs, depending on the pet's size, the shape of its jaw, and individual comfort preferences. 

Make sure you buy toothpaste for dogs. 

You heard me right. Toothpaste for dogs. 

"Human toothpaste is NOT for pets," warns Dr. Richter. "It can quickly cause an upset stomach." That is the last thing you want to happen when you are trying to acclimate your pup to this new hygienic routine.  

What makes dog toothpaste different?

"Unlike human toothpaste, dog toothpastes are safe to swallow and come in a range of flavors from peanut butter to poultry," shares Rachel Bodine, the proud owner of a 14-year-old labrador. 

Thomas shares this perspective, "I personally prefer the pastes with parsley and mint over say, chicken or peanut butter, because I think the result is fresher smelling, but by all means go with what helps you accomplish the task. Your dog needs to like it first and foremost!"

Best of all, using dog-specific toothpaste makes the job easier — for the brusher and the brush-ee. Dr. Richter points out: "You do not have to rinse the toothpaste from the teeth." It's safe for your dog to swallow and won't cause an upset tummy. 

How do I introduce teeth brushing to my dog?

"At first, brushing a dog’s teeth can be mildly stressful and confusing for the animal," explains Rob Jackson, CEO and cofounder of Healthy Paws Pet Insurance. "But like anything, the more you do it, the quicker your pet will become comfortable with you cleaning their teeth." 

As Jackson said, getting Sparky ready for his close-up isn't necessarily going to be easy. For this step, we turn to Stephanie Mantilla, a positive reinforcement-based animal trainer at Curiosity Trained. She has worked 12 years as a zookeeper and has a certificate in Behavioral Husbandry from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. 

She shares this proven method to help get your doggo ready for his cleaning: 

"Most likely if your dog has never had their teeth brushed before, they aren't going to initially like you sticking your hands on their mouth. For starting out, it's great to start touching your dog's muzzle area gently without a toothbrush around. Give treats or positively praise your dog if they let you touch them without a negative reaction.

To introduce the toothbrush, you should show it to your dog for a few days while giving treats and praising without trying to stick it into your dog's mouth.

Once they are relaxed around the toothbrush, put a small dab of pet-safe toothpaste on the end and let your dog lick it off the brush without you shoving it into their mouth.

After your dog is comfortable licking the toothpaste off the toothbrush, you can start slowing working your way towards touching the toothbrush to their teeth and gently brushing. Very small approximations are best to keep everything positive. 

This should be done daily or twice a day to build up their comfort. It's alright if initially, a training session lasts 20 seconds, as long as your dog is comfortable. Eventually, as their comfort level builds, you'll be able to brush more teeth and different parts of their mouth. 

Your dog's teeth should be brushed at least once a day even after the initial behavior is trained."

Baby steps are key. Here are a few more expert perspectives on helping to ease the introduction of the whole concept of brushing with a toothbrush and toothpaste: 

  • Gauge comfort level — "Before you stick a strange object into your dog’s mouth, it’s best to gauge his level of comfort," says Jackson. "Start off by petting the muzzle and lips, allowing your dog to get used to the sensation of you handling the area. Work up to rubbing a towel or piece of cloth on the teeth, mimicking the brushing motion. Finally, give your pup a taste of doggy toothpaste! If your dog seems to accept both the simulated brushing and the toothpaste, it’s time to move on to the next step."
  • Baby steps — "Gradually increase the amount of time you spend actually trying to brush teeth," says Dr. Coates, "until eventually, your dog will calmly sit still while you brush all of their teeth. Constant praise for good behavior and a treat afterwards certainly helps too."'
  • Make it positive — "It is very important to make the brushing a positive experience for the dog, or it will be a constant struggle and source of stress for both the dog and owner," says Rachel Szumel, DVM, co-author of an online course on toothbrushing for pets.  "In our course, we teach the owner to very carefully build up the brushing according to the dog's comfort level, and always pair the brushing with tasty snacks to create that positive association."

How do I brush my dog's teeth?

Once your dog is comfortable with the tools and the concept of brushing his teeth, it's time to get the process down. Dr. Gary Richter shares his four-step process to properly brushing your canine's canines

  • STEP 1— Gently pet and scratch the muzzle, slowly lifting the lip for about 30 seconds. Reward with a treat at the end of the session.
  • STEP 2 — Repeat as above except gently run your finger over your pet's teeth for 20–30 seconds. Reward and praise again.
  • STEP 3 — Place a small amount of toothpaste on the toothbrush and let your pet lick it (not actually brushing yet!) Most will really enjoy the taste, but if not, try a different flavor.
  • STEP 4 — If all is going well, try actually brushing the teeth. Remember, the upper outer surfaces are the most important, brushing for 20–30 seconds on each side.

The first time isn't going to be perfect. It's going to take time. Here are the takeaways on improving and perfecting your at-home dental care process with your pooch: 

  • Brush in circular motions
  • Focus on canines and the outside surface of the teeth and the gumline
  • Don't be too pushy
  • Inside surfaces and lower teeth aren't a priority
  • Make it fun, with positive reinforcement of your choosing

What should I include in our dental care routine?

"Aim to brush your dog’s teeth every day," says Dr. Coates. "A missed day here or there isn’t a problem, but anything less than every other day gives plaque a chance to harden into tartar that can only be removed with a professional dental cleaning."

Brushing is an important aspect of your dog's preventative dental care, but it's not the only line of defense against dental diseases. In addition to brushing, there are other things you can do to help care for your dog's oral health, with additional oral health products. The AAHA points out that preventative oral health products work in three ways

  • Mechanical (abrasion)
  • Nonmechanical (chemical)
  • Combo/dual action

If brushing is a no-go, what other things can we do to help our pup keep his teeth and gums healthy?

"Brushing your dog’s teeth every day, or at least every other day, is by far the best way to prevent dental disease," says Dr. Coates. However, she adds, "If you simply cannot brush your dog’s teeth, alternative dental hygiene products like water additives, sprays, or chews that are labeled with the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal will help keep your dog’s teeth cleaner than they would be otherwise."

While in a perfect world, these additional oral health products should be used in addition to your normal brushing routine, as Dr. Coates said, they can be better than nothing, if you haven't achieved brushing nirvana quite yet.  

"The VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council)," explains Darlene Hernandez-Geekie, RVT, of Veterinary Angels Medical Center, "is an organization that provides an objective means of recognizing commercially available products that meet pre-set standards of effectiveness in controlling the accumulation of plaque and calculus in dogs and cats."

Check out accepted VOHC products for more information. 

Dental toys and chews

There are many toys and chews meant to support clean dog teeth. "[A]n appropriate sized raw bone can be one of the most effective means of pets keeping their own teeth clean," says Dr. Richter. 

How so?

This is due to mechanical abrasion: "Chews like pigs’ ears and antlers are tough, which means your dog has to gnaw at them," explains Ewan McCowen, CEO of Kip & Twiggy's Ltd. "This gnawing action is extremely effective at removing plaque and tartar. And because most natural chews have very few calories, they also won’t add to your doggy’s waistline!"

Some chew toys are beneficial to your dog's dental hygiene, and some can be harmful. Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, FdSc NT, is the Head of Research for LeafScore.com, a consumer resource for eco-friendly products. Matthews explains:

"Many of the conventional chew toys marketed as dental chews can be harmful to dogs. Some are simply too hard and can crack teeth, others are too soft and can constitute a choking hazard. The biggest issue, though, is that many chews such as pigs' ears, rawhide, and so on, are coated or treated with chemicals to sterilize these or to impart flavor or color. Such chemicals include formaldehyde and bleach. These can cause digestive upset, tooth staining (and carpet stains!), bacterial growth, and may also be carcinogenic or affect reproductive health.

Even fabric chew toys may have been treated with carcinogenic azo dyes, while other dental products may contain lead and other heavy metals in the paint as well as phthalates (plastic softeners) that are known endocrine disruptors.

And, as the science shows, the mechanical action of chewing, coupled with warm moisture in a dog's mouth, increases the leaching of these chemicals from chew toys.

The best bet for dental chew toys, then, is something such as undyed, unbleached, natural loofah, a hemp rope, or jute. Hemp is naturally antibacterial, so manufacturers (hopefully) won't be tempted to coat these toys in antimicrobials that can, ironically, be toxic to dogs. Another good option is an olive wood 'bone' treated with natural linseed oil only. This will mulch rather than splinter and can be a great way to keep a dog's teeth clean, especially if they won't abide having them brushed."

No matter which dental toys you decide on, Hernandez-Geekie reminds pet owners that supervision is always recommended when your pet is given a chew toy. 

Sprays and water additives

"There are also sprays and water additives that can be used for helping reduce plaque and freshen your dog's breath," says Thomas. Products like BreathVet and Teef are added to your dog's normal water bowl to help fight bacteria and protect teeth

Not every dog is going to like it. "Some dogs ... will refuse to drink the water or fight their owners over the spray." 

Dental sprays "are really good products for mild dental disease," shares Dr. Ochoa. But severe dental disease, Ochoa advises, "is going to need a toothbrush or professional dental cleaning." 

"Be sure to read the ingredients and do research/ask your vet (especially) about the ingested ones, as naturally these need to be considered when it comes to your dog's overall health," says Thomas. Remember that these aren't food. "These products have no nutritional values and should not be given instead of food or treats," says Ochoa.

"Dental chews are available everywhere — and at a low price, but they are not very effective," says Dr. Emily Stein, Ph.D., Founder of Teef. "It's adding calories, and possibly sugar which could make your pet need dental care more!" 

"Read those labels on chews and treats," advises Dr. Stein. "Watch out for carbohydrates. Stay away from potato or other starches, processed grains, and fruits, which can be quickly turned into things that drive dental disease in your dog's mouth."

TL;DR

  1. Brush your dog's teeth. 
  2. Dental health is important.
  3. There are special toothbrushes and toothpaste for dogs.
  4. There are lots of other products approved to help with your dog's breath and teeth, but brushing is number one.
  5. It might not be easy at first, but there are lots of resources out there, including this low-cost, step-by-step, online course.
  6. Brush your dog's teeth, please.
  7. Read doggie dental FAQs.

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