Cleaning your pup's teeth is an important part of their health, especially because pets are prone to plaque buildup and other dental issues. Here's how to make the process painless for both of you.

By Barry Stringfellow
Updated December 30, 2020
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Oral health is imperative for both dog owners and their pets. No, your pup won't have the same minty fresh breath that you have after a gargling mouthwash, but brushing your dog's teeth regularly can help prevent tartar buildup that can cause periodontal problems and lead to significant issues (like losing teeth and the bones that support them). Your dog needs those pearly whites to eat!

Not taking care of your pup's teeth can also cause gingivitis, which shows up as gums that bleed easily. That can be incredibly painful for your four-legged friend. Severe neglect of your pet's mouth can lead to life-threatening infections and cause diseases in the heart, kidneys or liver.

Unfortunately, according to the American Veterinary Dental Society, 80% of dogs have some dental issue by age 3. Small breeds are particularly prone to this. And lax dental care can lead to hefty dental bills down the road. A routine dental cleaning on an adult dog is typically done under general anesthesia and costs anywhere from $450 to $1,000, not including extractions.

Although dogs can be trained to do many things, the lack of opposable thumbs makes brushing and dispensing toothpaste an impossible task. So, it's up to you. (Don't worry, it's not as scary as you might think.)

Close up of a Border Collie with mouth open
Credit: RapidEye/Getty Images

Ideally, you’ll want to start when your pup is young, as early in life as possible. Begin by rubbing your finger over the teeth and gums for 30 seconds. A folded piece of gauze can be a good beginner's toothbrush. Work up to an extra-soft baby toothbrush, a soft rubber brush that fits on your fingertip, or a toothbrush designed for dogs or puppies..

If you haven't started young, but want to take care of your best friend's teeth, let the vet clean them. Plaque can't be brushed away, and a proper cleaning can't be done without the dog under anesthesia. Even the calmest dogs don't like buzzing foreign objects shoved in their mouths under bright lights. Once the teeth have been professionally cleaned, it may never have to be done again if you brush them routinely.

Focus first on a few teeth. Gradually increase the number until you can clean your pup’s entire mouth in one quick session. It doesn't have to take more than 30 seconds. You don't have to open your dog's mouth to brush its teeth. The outer surfaces of the teeth, especially where the teeth meet, are the most important spots. Lifting the cheek with the mouth closed allows for better access to the back teeth.

Baking soda mixed with a ground-up beef bouillon cube and water makes a good canine toothpaste. There is also dog toothpaste that comes in flavors like chicken, beef, and peanut. Make sure to avoid fluoridated or artificially sweetened human toothpaste. (Many contain the sweetener xylitol, which can cause a sudden drop in the dog's blood glucose and lead to vomiting, seizures and liver problems.)

How Often Should You Brush Your Dog's Teeth?

Some dogs will have healthy teeth most of their lives and require nothing more than a yearly checkup. Others will be prone to tartar buildup from an early age. Genes, diet, chewing habits, and the chemical composition of saliva all play a role in this roll of the dental dice.

The more dogs get their teeth brushed, the more likely they will stay healthy. If you can't brush at least every other day, check the teeth and gums regularly for plaque and swollen red gums. Subtle signs of dental distress include constant nose licking, reluctance to chew on treats or toys, and pawing the face.

Good dental care is essential to extend your pet's lifespan and ensure a good quality of life. Your pup will be happy that you regularly take care of their teeth.

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