Reviewed and updated for accuracy on November 25, 2019 by Dr. Monica Tarantino, DVM
Any dentist will tell you that brushing after every meal, flossing daily and going for twice yearly cleanings add up to optimal oral health.
It’s no different with dogs: both home care and veterinary care are essential to keeping their mouths clean and healthy.
While various options for at-home dental care exist, most board-certified veterinary dentists agree that nothing is more beneficial than daily toothbrushing.
Here’s a guide for how to clean your dog’s teeth at home, from the tools you’ll need to getting them used to the idea and actually brushing. Just remember that your dog’s dental health is a combined effort between at-home care and professional teeth cleaning.
What You’ll Need to Brush Your Dog’s Teeth
The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) (an organization of veterinary dentists and dental scientists) says that toothbrushing is the “gold standard” for at-home dental care for pets.
However, you can’t use human dental products for your dog—these contain ingredients that are not pet-safe. To keep your dog’s mouth healthy and safe, use pet-approved products that don’t include any harmful ingredients.
Here’s what you’ll need to brush your pup’s teeth safely and effectively.
Dog-specific toothbrushes come in many forms, from conventional-looking toothbrushes with extra-long handles and smaller bristle heads to dental ‘wipes’ and finger toothbrushes.
You can consult the VOHC’s list of approved products and test a few different options to figure out what your dog is comfortable with.
A few of the pet-specific toothbrush products available include the Vetoquinol Enzadent dual-ended toothbrush, the Pet Republique dog and cat finger toothbrush and the Virbac C.E.T. oral hygiene dog kit, which includes both a conventional toothbrush and a finger toothbrush.
Your dog does not know how to “spit out” their toothpaste after brushing, so extra care and consideration needs to be given to doggy toothpaste ingredients. Ingredients contained in human toothpaste can be harmful and even toxic to your dog, like fluoride or even xylitol.
Dog-safe toothpaste also tends to come in chicken, beef or peanut butter flavors that are more appealing to a dog—but mint flavor is available as well.
A few toothpaste options for dogs are Vetoquinol Vet Solutions Enzadent toothpaste, Virbac C.E.T. Enzymatic toothpaste and Sentry Petrodex veterinary strength enzymatic toothpaste.
If you are not sure which one to choose, ask your veterinarian for suggestions.
How to Get Your Dog Comfortable With Toothbrushing
Toothbrushing should be a positive experience for your dog. To help them feel comfortable with the process, you will need to desensitize them to lip/gum handling and the toothbrush and toothpaste.
Patience is essential when building trust with your pet for toothbrushing.
Move slowly and help them build a positive association with the process by rewarding them during every step. For a food-driven dog, you can give them their favorite treats. For an attention-driven dog, give them lots of praise and then extra playtime afterwards.
Here are some tips for getting your dog to accept toothbrushing as part of their daily routine.
Desensitizing Your Dog to Lip and Gum Handling
Desensitization is most effective when started during a dog’s puppy years, but it’s not impossible to desensitize an adult dog—as long as you provide tasty or fun incentives.
To start desensitizing your dog to gum and lip handling, move their lips and gently touch their teeth as you would with a toothbrush.
As your dog gets used you touching inside their mouth, you can introduce a dental wipe or a piece of gauze wrapped around your finger in order to mimic the motions of a toothbrush.
You will want to gently touch their teeth and provide lots of praise and treats so they learn that good things happen when you are dealing with their teeth.
Once they tolerate this, use the wipe to begin moving your finger in a circular motion over each of your dog’s teeth.
If your pet seems overwhelmed, go back a step or two to recreate the positive association.
Be patient; while this may be easy for some dogs, it’s normal for it to take weeks to months.
Even if you never make it past this step, you at least have a pet that will tolerate toothbrushing with a dental wipe. That can still be a helpful form of preventative dental maintenance.
Introducing the Dog Toothbrush
When you first introduce a toothbrush to your dog, practice giving your pet praise or a treat each time the toothbrush is brought out.
Once your dog associates their toothbrush with positive treats and praise, you can begin gently touching your pet’s mouth with the toothbrush. Keep repeating this process until they are comfortable.
You can then work on building comfort with the brushing motion.
Don’t force your dog into accepting toothbrushing. Go slow with the process until they feel comfortable with each step towards toothbrushing. You want them to enjoy or at least comfortably tolerate the process, not dread that activity every day.
Introducing Dog Toothpaste
Just with the previous steps, you will need to introduce the toothpaste slowly as well.
Since dog toothpastes are made with flavors that mimic the foods that dogs already enjoy—like poultry or beef—you can start by just letting your pup taste the toothpaste from your finger.
If they like the flavor and lick it up happily, then you can bring out the toothbrush.
If your pet allows toothbrushing but hates toothpaste, go without the toothpaste. The mechanical act of toothbrushing even without toothpaste is still helpful.
How to Clean Your Dog’s Teeth
Toothbrushing is best performed daily, but every other day can be helpful. However, brushing less than every other day makes little-to-no difference in dental health.
The best approach to brushing your dog’s teeth is to think of your pet’s mouth in sections: back right, front right, back left and front left. It’s also a good idea to stand behind your pet with them in your lap.
This position will make sure you are both facing the same direction and can make it easier to access all the sections of your dog’s mouth.
Give each area the same amount of brushing, and remember that you only need to focus on the outward-facing side of your dog’s teeth.
Apply your pet-safe toothpaste (if using) to the toothbrush and moisten with water.
Apply toothbrush to your pet’s teeth at a 45 degree angle.
As you start brushing, address each region (back right, front left, etc.) individually. Focus on three horizontal strokes (back and forth) and then a final stroke going from gumline towards tips of the crown.
The back teeth can be a place where tartar accumulates rapidly. To help expose the back teeth, gently pull your dog’s lip back at the corner of the mouth.
If you notice that the toothbrush bristles ‘curve’ or visibly deflect, then you are pushing too hard.
Brushing too hard can lead to gingival damage. Imagine brushing off a tomato without bruising it—this is about the same amount of pressure you should apply with a toothbrush.
Other Dog Dental Care Options
You should never get to the point where you fear being bitten by your dog during toothbrushing.
If toothbrushing is not accepted by your dog, then you can focus on other at-home dental care options, like dental treats, chews, foods and water additives. You can also consult the VOHC list of approved dog products for options to discuss with your veterinarian.
VOHC-approved treats, chews and kibbles are meant to reduce tartar accumulation. Because these treats can also be high in calories, they may not be the best choice for pets with weight issues.
If your dog does tolerate toothbrushing, these should not be used as a replacement. You should consider these as complements to their daily brushing routine and veterinary dental cleanings.
Importance of Professional Dental Cleanings
At-home care of your dog’s mouth is part of effective preventative care, but it doesn’t treat already rotten or diseased teeth. These require a professional dental cleaning and treatment at your veterinary office.
The frequency of dental cleanings will depend on your dog. Some dogs, especially smaller breeds, will need annual professional dental cleanings to maintain optimum dental health.
Canine dental cleanings get below the gumline, and during the cleaning, your vet can assess the overall health of your dog’s mouth. They are an essential part of your dog’s annual care.
By: Dr. Monica Tarantino, DVM
Featured Image: iStock.com/sara ganzi