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How (and How Often) to Brush a Dog's Teeth

How (and How Often) to Brush a Dog’s Teeth

As dedicated pet parents, we make it a point to take excellent care of our dogs. We spend time researching what to feed them with options like fresh, organic and human-grade dog food. We take them to top-notch groomers. We buy them all the toys and treats they could ever want. But when it comes to brushing a dog’s teeth—well, that may be a different story.

Dog dental facts

According to Petco research, a sizable 61 percent of dog parents say they never brush their dog’s teeth. But routine dental care at home is critical to maintaining your dog’s health. In fact, dental disease affects approximately 80% of dogs (Source: Packaged Facts: "Pet Oral Care Services and Products in the U.S." 3rd Edition, 2018.).

Below, we explain why you need to brush your dog’s teeth and demonstrate how to do it right.

Do I need to brush my dog’s teeth?

Not only can gum disease lead to pain and discomfort for dogs, but it may also be a precursor to more serious health problems such as kidney, liver or heart disease.

Dr. Milinda Lommer, Diplomate of the American Veterinary Dental College, says you should brush your dog’s teeth often. “As with human mouths, the number of bacteria in a dog's mouth doubles every six to eight hours,” she says. “Therefore, it's important to reduce their numbers by mechanically removing as many bacteria as possible.”

How often should I brush my dog’s teeth?

While daily brushing is ideal, Dr. Whitney Miller, DVM, MBA, DACVPM and Head of Veterinary Medicine at Petco, recognizes the difficulty this may present when you’re busy. While you should aim to brush your dog’s teeth at least 1–2 times per week, you can also supplement with other dental care measures. “Pets, just like people, should have some form of a daily dental routine,” says Miller. “While brushing daily is ideal, you cansimplify it by giving a dental treat, water additive or using a dental wipe on days you can’t get to brushing.”

How to brush your dog’s teeth

Brushing your dog’s teeth at home can feel like a challenge at first. But these tips can help to make the experience comfortable for you and your pet.

1. Get the right dog tooth-brushing tools

When brushing your dog’s teeth at home, the first things you need are a pet-friendly toothbrush and a pet-safe toothpaste. Since pets don’t know how to spit out toothpaste, human toothpaste is not suitable for pets. Toothpaste used for human mouths contains fluoride, which can upset your dog’s stomach, and may even contain xylitol, which is toxic to dogs. Lommer recommends using products specifically designed and formulated for dogs.

“Pet-safe toothpastes are different from human toothpastes in that they don't have foaming agents, are safe to swallow and are flavored to appeal to pets,” she says. Flavors including poultry, beef, seafood and peanut butter will definitely make a pet happier to have their teeth brushed.

dog tooth brushing suppliesFor smaller dogs, try a pet toothbrush that fits on the end of your finger—it can be much easier to maneuver within their mouths. Larger dogs respond well to larger toothbrushes with a handle, as it can be easier to reach their back teeth.

2. Try a test run

Once you have the right tools, it’s important to do what you can to get your pet familiar with the toothbrush. Before you attempt to use it, get your dog comfortable by regularly lifting up their lips and offering them rewards for good behavior. Incorporate rubbing your finger or a dental wipe along their gum line to get your dog used to having something in their mouth. The more comfortable your dog is with being handled, the easier the tooth-brushing experience will be. Once they become familiar with  the toothbrush, start with short brushing sessions and gradually increase the time as they become more comfortable. You should be able to brush all their teeth in one sitting.

3. Get in a comfortable position

Most dogs will squirm and try to get away when you attempt to brush their teeth. 38 percent of pet parents who don’t brush their pet’s teeth say it’s because their dogs won’t sit still for the time needed to brush. Lommer recommends positioning your dog in a way that it’s easier for you to hold them in place.

“For small dogs, either wrap them in a towel like a burrito or sit next to them on a couch. Then wrap your elbow around their body and bring them close to your side to help keep them still while you are working with their head,” Lommer says. When brushing a larger dog’s teeth, sit next to them and wrap your arm around their head, supporting their chin. In this position, you can use your hand to help move  their mouth to best brush their teeth.

Never force a dog to stay if they are visibly upset or uncomfortable, because this can lead to negative associations with brushing, Lommer says. Instead, if your dog starts fidgeting too much, let them go and try again later. Lommer says that it’s crucial to be careful with how you restrain or hold your  dog. “...Proper restraint is important, as their attempts to evade often involve tossing the head around, and neck injury could result,” she says.

4. Go for the gum line

Rather than opening your dog’s mouth all the way, Lommer recommends lifting your dog’s lip and focusing on where their teeth meet the gum line.

dog tooth brushing supplies

While brushing toward the front of your dog’s mouth may be more acceptable to them, it’s best to focus your efforts on their back teeth where plaque and tartar build up. “The salivary ducts empty at the sides of the mouth onto the outside surfaces of the upper back teeth, so starting there is best,” Lommer says. Target this area with small, circular motions when brushing your dog’s teeth.

Make sure to strike the right balance between brushing too hard and being too gentle. Lommer says that many pet owners don’t scrub hard enough or spend enough time brushing to really remove plaque buildup. “Just like our own mouths, the more time you spend, the more effective plaque removal you're accomplishing,” she says.

5. Continue the upkeep

While brushing at least a couple times per week is essential to maintaining your dog’s dental health, you can supplement care between brushings with dental treats or chews for dogs, water additives and dental wipes. These treatments help reduce plaque buildup but aren’t enough on their own to maintain your dog’s oral health, so you will still need a regular brushing routine.

WholeHearted Dog Dental Treat

How to make teeth-brushing easier

40 percent of pet parents who don’t brush their dog’s teeth neglect to do so without a reason. However, if the chore is made easier for you and your dog, it’s sure to happen more often. When it comes to making dog tooth-brushing easier for your dog, Lommer says to not underestimate the power of praise. She says that praising your dog while you’re brushing their teeth can go a long way in helping your dog feel comfortable.

Another way you can make the experience less stressful is to choose the right time to do it. Brushing your dog’s teeth after playtime or mealtime when their energy is low may help. If you are still having trouble, bring your dog in for a dental brushing at your veterinarian's office or local Petco store.

Things to watch for when brushing your dog’s teeth

As you’re brushing your dog’s teeth, it’s a good opportunity to look for any signs of tooth pain, mouth injuries or general discomfort that may suggest a bigger problem. “If a pet winces, cries or pulls away when a specific area is touched, that's a clear sign of pain, but most pets with oral pain are not demonstrative in any way,” says Lommer.  

If your pet shows any sign of pain or if you notice something abnormal in your dog’s mouth, it’s important to get them evaluated by your regular veterinarian. “Even teeth that look OK from the outside can be abscessed, so X-rays are the only way to thoroughly assess a pet's dental health,” says Lommer.

Dr. Miller says that it may be time to take your dog to your veterinarian if you notice the following:

  • Excessively red gums

  • Bleeding gums

  • Excessive drooling

  • Difficulty or pain when chewing food

  • Damaged or chipped teeth 

  • Worse than usual breath (which may indicate a dental abscess or tooth root)


If you have any questions about brushing your dog’s teeth, visit your local Petco, where you can also sign up for dog dental service. Or, find all the right teeth-brushing tools for your dog at petco.com.