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How To Brush A Dog's Teeth (And Why It's Important)

How to Brush a Dog’s Teeth (and Why it’s Important)

As dedicated pet parents, we make it a point to take excellent care of our dogs. We spend time researching whether to feed them organic, natural or 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.

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, 80 percent of dogs show signs of dental disease by age 3.

Below, we explain why you need to brush your dog’s teeth and demonstrate how 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 is may also be a precursor to more serious health problems such as kidney, liver or heart disease.

Dr. Melinda 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.”

While daily brushing is ideal, Dr. Christie Long, Director of Veterinary Medicine at Petco, recognizes the difficulty this may present and she encourages pet parents to brush their dog’s teeth at least 2-3 times per week.

Do I need to brush my puppy’s teeth?

It’s likely that even though you may know to brush an adult dog’s teeth, you may be unsure about the need to brush a puppy’s teeth—aren’t they just going to lose them? “Yes, a puppy will lose those teeth, but it’s actually the perfect time to start brushing their teeth,” Long says. It helps your puppy get used to having your finger in their mouth and will only aid the process as your dog ages.

How to brush your dog’s teeth

Brushing your dog’s teeth at home can be a challenge. 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 veterinary-approved toothpaste. Lommer recommends using products specifically designed and formulated for pets.

dog tooth brushing supplies

“Veterinary toothpastes are different from human toothpastes in that they don't have foaming agents, they are safe to swallow and they 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, she said.

Long adds, “Stick to a pet-safe toothpaste since pets don’t know how to spit out toothpaste. Human toothpaste that contains fluoride can often upset their stomach.”

For 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 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 piece of cloth 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.

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 it’s too hard to keep their dogs still for the time needed to brush. Lommer recommends positioning your dog so 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. From there you can use your hand to help position 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 small dogs. “With little dogs, 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 says, simply try lifting your dog’s lip and focusing on where their teeth meet the gum line.

Brushing a Dog’s Teeth

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 actual brushing is essential to maintaining your dog’s dental health, you can supplement care between brushings with dog dental chews or dental wipes. Both of these treatments can aid in reducing the buildup of plaque but aren’t enough on their own to maintaining your dog’s good dental health.

How to make dog tooth-brushing easier

Fourty percent of pet parents who don’t brush their dog’s teeth don’t necessarily have a reason, but by making the chore easier on you and your dog, it’s sure to happen more often. When it comes to making dog tooth-brushing easier, Lommer says, do 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 to make the experience less stressful is to choose the right time to do it. Trying the task at a time where your dog’s energy is diminished may help. Consider after play time or an hour after mealtime.

Things to watch for when brushing your dog’s teeth

It’s a good opportunity as you’re brushing to look for any signs of mouth or dental discomfort in your pet that may signify 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 you notice any warning signs that your pet is in pain or if you spot any chipped teeth or feel any growths in your dog’s mouth, it’s important to get them evaluated by a veterinary dentist or 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. Long says that it may be time to take your dog to your veterinarian or pet dentist 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 tooth root abscess)

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