Like humans' teeth, dogs’ teeth are important to their overall health. In fact, their look and smell can alert you to serious health problems. Dogs suffer from the same diseases we do – gingivitis, periodontal disease, tooth loss, and oral cancer – so taking care of their teeth can help detect and combat those diseases as early as possible. By knowing how to care for their teeth properly and making it a priority, you can help prevent them from developing major oral problems later in life.
Tools for his teeth
Before you start brushing his teeth, there are two things you need to buy:
The best toothbrushes for dogs are ones that are designed specifically for them –gentle, soft, angled, and ones with multiple heads. Amazon and Dogtime have great toothbrush options and product reviews. Remember, your dog will not be brushing his own teeth, so the brush needs to fit your hand and grip comfortably. When I was younger, I brushed my family dog Baby’s teeth with a finger toothbrush because he would never allow me access to his mouth with a brush. Plus, I could feel his teeth and grooves so I knew I was really getting in there.
Human toothpaste is not good for dogs because it contains ingredients (like fluoride) or high levels of sodium that are not meant to be ingested. And since dogs don’t spit like we do, they can swallow the paste and get sick. (I did not know that when I was younger so now I feel terrible.) What’s more, dog toothpaste is available in flavors like poultry or beef that will make the whole teeth brushing experience more enjoyable for them aka more possible for you. To find the best toothpaste, check out DogTime where they review various types or PetSmart where they sell toothbrushes and toothpaste together.
How to brush their teeth
Look, no one really likes brushing their teeth, flossing, or going to the dentist, but it has to be done. Sit your dog down and tell her she has no choice, but she can make it easier on herself if she cooperates.
Start her young
Like with training a dog, the easiest way to brush your dog’s teeth is by first doing it when she’s still a puppy. Although you can teach an old dog new tricks, it’s harder when she’s older, sassier, and brattier. TRUST ME.
It’s important that you’re both relaxed when you brush her teeth. Dogs feed off of their owner’s energy, and they will tense up if you are nervous or agitated about the task ahead. Make it a nice, calming experience for her – go slowly, be gentle, and speak softly. After you’re done, give her a treat (one that boasts dental hygiene, of course) to let know her teeth cleaning can be a positive experience. And if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. You will make progress each time you do it so it’s important to not give up.
Know your dog's mouth
Although dogs’ teeth are not as sharp as cats’ teeth, their teeth and jaws are stronger. Dogs have four types of teeth: incisors, canines, premolars, and molars. Her incisors are the cute, little, delicate teeth in the front. There are twelve of them, and they are primarily used for grooming. Her canines (four in total) are the large, pointy teeth at the front of her mouth that look like fangs. They’re used for grabbing a toy or bone. Behind her canines are her premolars (sixteen in total, four in each quadrant) and they are sharp and used for cutting and tearing into food. And all the way in the back are her molars. There are ten of them and they’re used for grinding food.
Use a cloth the first few times
Or your finger (as long as she didn’t just consume poop) or a finger toothbrush at first to get your dog ready for teeth cleaning. You can put the toothpaste directly on the cloth or finger. Doing this first will help her accept your hands and the smell and taste of the toothpaste in her mouth. What’s more, by using the cloth to gently rub her teeth and gums, you’re also starting a beneficial base cleaning before the real deal while simultaneously helping her get comfortable with the process. Once she allows the cloth or finger, you can try brushing her teeth with a toothbrush.
Brush with a canine toothbrush
Make sure you’re both comfortable and then raise her lips on whichever side you’re planning to start brushing. (You can try spreading her lips by taking your thumb and index fingers together at her jaw and separating them in opposite directions.) Gently lift her head so she can see in her mouth and start brushing. I always start at the bottom row back tooth first and make my way to the front. I do that because I have most of his attention and obedience in the beginning so I want to start with the hard-to-reach places first – his molars – and work my way up. Believe me, I lose more of his patience with each tooth I brush.
Brush her teeth at least twice a week
Brush each side for at least 30 seconds in a circular motion (I try to do each quadrant for 30 seconds if my dog is being patient). Focus on the teeth that are large and vital for chewing and ones that are covered in or most likely to accumulate plaque and tartar. And make the outer surfaces a priority. Don’t worry too much about the insides of her teeth – especially if your dog is getting bitey or fidgety – because most dental problems and disease exist on the outer surfaces.
How to maintain their healthy teeth
The best way to prevent doggy dental problems is by cleaning and maintaining healthy teeth and gums. Here's how you easily do that:
Give him dry food
Soft food will stick to his teeth and gums and causes tooth decay, especially if you don’t brush his teeth regularly. There are also specific dog food brands on the market that help reduce tartar and plaque buildup if your dog has severe dental needs.
Check his mouth regularly
One of the best ways to keep your pet’s mouth healthy is to stop problems in their tracks, says Dr. Denise Petryk, DVM and in-house veterinarian for Trupanion. In addition to brushing his teeth, look in his mouth often for bad breath, cysts or tumors, missing or loose teeth, redness, inflammation, and too much moisture or drool. Check his gums and make sure they’re pink, not white or red. If you see anything odd or any signs of oral disease, contact your vet.
Maintain regular vet visits
Your doctor should examine your pet’s mouth at each visit. Many vets also provide tooth and gum cleanings and mouth care services so ask your doctor about them at your next appointment.
Give him chew toys and bones
The American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC) especially recommends rawhide products or chews that contain anti-tartar ingredients. Nylon and rubber chew toys are also great because they help massage the gums, remove tartar, and prevent him from chewing your belongings, says Dr. Petryk.
Although being your dog’s dentist seems annoying and expensive, think about the longterm effects and costs of not doing it. A typical dog cleaning costs between $70-$350 but won’t have to happen often or even at all if you brush his teeth and check his mouth regularly. If you don’t make his oral health a priority, not only will he be in pain from periodontal disease or procedures like tooth extraction, it will cost you $1,000 or more to get it resolved. That doesn’t count the costs of tests and bloodwork needed before surgery or the special diet he may need to be put on after surgery. If you brush his teeth twice a week, check his mouth often, and maintain regular vet visits, not only will he be healthy and happy, you will save money because you won’t have to fund expensive dental care and surgeries in the future.
Image: Rennet Stowe