Do you put off brushing your dog’s teeth because it turns into a wrestling match? Are you not even entirely sure how to brush a dog’s teeth? This important grooming process is more than just cosmetic—dental disease is the most common preventable disease in dogs.
“Dental care improves health and quality of life by reducing inflammation and infection that leads to systemic problems and eventually pain,” says Bert Gaddis, DVM, DAVDC, owner of Indian Springs Animal Clinic in Pelham, Alabama. “Good health care, including dental care, is associated with our pets living longer.”
Maintaining your dog’s dental health doesn’t have to be a chore. The secret to toothbrushing success is addressing all of the handling that goes along with the brushing process and helping your dog learn to accept it with ease. Read on for a comprehensive lesson on how to brush a dog’s teeth.
What Can I Use to Brush My Dog’s Teeth?
Before we dive into how to clean dogs’ teeth, let’s take a quick look at the tools you’ll need. It’s probably no surprise that they look similar to your own dental health tools—sans the dental floss, of course:
Toothbrush for Dogs
Have you ever wondered what to brush a dog’s teeth with? Dog toothbrushes come in a range of styles, including single head, double head and one that fits on the end of your finger. Experts recommend using a soft-bristled brush to prevent damage to the gumline. Whether you use a regular dog toothbrush or a fingertip toothbrush is up to you, but keep in mind that a large dog might accidentally bite down on the fingertip type of brush. Ouch!
Specially formulated for cleaning dogs’ teeth at home, the various brands of dog toothpaste come in savory meat, mint and other lip-smacking, breath-freshening flavors, and they contain dog-safe ingredients that can be swallowed. For example, Virbac’s C.E.T. Enzymatic dog toothpaste comes in poultry flavor or vanilla-mint flavor. Can dogs use human toothpaste? Absolutely not, says Dr. Gaddis. Human toothpaste contains detergents, fluoride and artificial sweeteners, like xylitol, that dogs shouldn’t swallow.
Some brands sell a combo pack that includes a toothbrush and toothpaste, like Vetoquinol’s Enzadent Toothbrush Kit, which features a dual-ended toothbrush, a finger brush and a tube of poultry-flavored enzymatic toothpaste.
In addition to your dog’s toothbrush and toothpaste, have a stash of scrumptious dog treats on hand, especially when you’re training your pal to love the toothbrushing routine.
How to Brush a Dog’s Teeth: Step-by-Step Instructions
Brushing your dog’s teeth involves a bit more than just inserting the brush and swirling it around. To do it the right way, grab your dog treats and dental tools, and follow these steps to polish your pal’s pearly whites:
Get your dog comfortable with having their muzzle and mouth handled.
To begin, cup your hand under your dog’s chin, hold it there for a few seconds and then give them a treat from the other hand, advises certified dog trainer Victoria Schade Bresnahan, CPDT-KA, owner of Frolic Pup in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. This will probably feel like normal petting so it shouldn’t stress your dog out. Repeat the process several times so that your dog begins to associate your hands briefly under his muzzle with getting a treat.
Next, you want to get them used to having their lips lifted and their mouth opened. Place one hand under your dog’s muzzle and the other hand over the top for a few seconds, and then give them a treat. Continue by putting your hand in various positions on and around your dog’s mouth, trying to mimic what you’ll be doing when you actually start brushing, Schade says. Also practice approaching your dog from the side rather than the front, which will help them feel less intimidated, especially when you have a toothbrush in hand.
Lastly, mimic tooth brushing with your finger. Sitting on their left or right side, cup your dog’s muzzle in your hand while you lift their lip and examine their mouth with your fingers, and then give them a treat, Schade says. Practice running your finger along their gum line from the front all the way to the back where their molars are. This whole getting-used-to-it stage could take anywhere from a week to several weeks—so be patient with your pal.
Let your dog inspect the toothbrush and dog toothpaste.
Once your dog is used to having their muzzle and mouth handled, it's time to bring in the dog toothbrushing supplies. One of the biggest mistakes people make when using grooming tools is immediately jumping into the work without allowing the dog to examine the item first, says Schade. When your dog is ready to move on to the next step, allow your dog to sniff and taste the toothbrush before you try to use it, again using lots of praise and positive reinforcement. Adding the toothpaste will make it even more interesting, which will work in your favor.
Find a comfortable spot to start your toothbrushing session. Add a daub of the tasty toothpaste to your dog’s toothbrush and begin by brushing your dog’s front teeth in a circular motion for a few seconds. Though you’ve done your prep work and your dog can tolerate the mouth handling, the addition of the toothbrush will make the process seem brand new again. Pair the process with goodies to reassure your dog that good things happen when they allow you to work on their mouth, says Schade.
Reward and repeat.
Don’t expect to complete your dog’s entire mouth the first time you brush. Introduce the brush for about 10 seconds on your dog’s front teeth and then wrap it up for the day. Continue these brief brushing sessions on the front and sides of your dog’s mouth over the course of a week, advises Schade. Your dog should accept the handling without complaint, and if you’ve done a good job with pairing the handling with treats, you dog might actually get excited when they see the toothbrush!
Gradually work toward the back of your dog’s mouth, with the goal of brushing all their teeth—front to back—in one session.
The process can be more challenging as you work toward the back of your dog’s mouth. If you have a short-nosed breed, you might have to do some digging through lip and gums to find your dog’s molars. Rather than try to completely clean the rear teeth in one attempt—keep in mind that this step requires holding your dog’s mouth open—try a several quick brushes so that the process remains comfortable for your dog, Schade says.
Toothbrushing can feel like a chore if you need to battle with your dog for access to their mouth, particularly when scrubbing those back molars. If your dog is comfortable with mouth handling but won’t stay still for some regular dental hygiene, enlist an assistance to help you.
How Often Do You Need to Brush a Dog’s Teeth?
When considering how often to brush dogs’ teeth, you should ideally give them a good cleaning daily or every other day, says Dr. Gaddis, focusing on the outer part—or lip side—of the tooth surfaces.
“Daily or every other day is best because plaque is easily brushed away,” he says. “It takes about 48-72 hours to harden and calcify and, therefore, need to be scrapes off. The majority of plaque is on the outer surface so best to concentrate there, but some dogs will cooperate to open the mouth and brush the inner surfaces.”
Dog Toothbrushing Tips and Troubleshooting
Through this entire process, your pal should remain calm and accepting as you work with them. If they react to any of the handling, Schade says, don’t push them. It’s likely you’ve moved too quickly through the process, so go back to the last type of handling that your dog accepted, and slowly work toward the next step.
Here are some other pro tips from trainer Schade:
- Vary the length of time that you manipulate your dog’s muzzle and mouth, sometimes holding it for just a few seconds and others for a slightly longer period of time, and always follow each attempt with a treat. Work up to gently opening your dog’s mouth for a few moments.
- Dip your finger in peanut butter before putting it in your dog’s mouth.
- Don’t worry about “undoing” the brushing by using treats; dog toothpaste is formulated to dissolve long-term plaque buildup, so a few treats during the brushing won’t have any impact.
- Some breeds have unique tooth growth patterns that cause the teeth to crowd together, so pay extra attention to those areas as they’re likely harbors for buildup.
- Seek professional help for a dental examination and deep cleaning at least once per year, twice if your pal is prone to periodontal disease, advises Dr. Gaddis.
In between brushings, consider offering your pal some dental treats, like Greenies Dental Treats, Dr. Lyon’s Grain-Free Dental Treats or Whimzees Dog Treats. You could also add plaque-busting enzymes, like those found in ProDen PlaqueOff or VetriScience Perio Support, to their food. Water additives can help fight plaque, too. Some trusted brands to consider include TropiClean’s Fresh Breath Water Additive, Oxyfresh’s Water Additive with Oxygene and Nylabone’s Advanced Oral Care Water Additive.
Good luck—and happy brushing!