Cleaning your dog's teeth is an important part of his healthcare, 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

No dog owner should expect his best friend to have minty fresh breath, especially given the smell of most of the things they love to eat. But you do want to avoid the tartar buildup that can  become periodontal problems that lead to major health issues. Also, bad breath can be a sign of gingivitis, which shows up as inflamed gums that bleed easily. Unchecked, infections in the gums can destroy the bone structure that support the teeth. It can also lead to disease of the heart, kidneys, or liver.

The canine mouth is more alkaline than ours and more conducive to plaque formation. As a result, over 80 percent of dogs have some kind of dental issue by 3, according to the American Veterinary Dental Society. Small breeds are particularly prone to this.

Related: This is the Real Reason Your Dog Eats Poop

Periodontal disease occurs frequently in dogs and can have serious consequences. Lax dental care can lead to big dental bills down the road. A complete dental cleaning on an adult dog is usually done under general anesthesia and could cost over $800, not including extractions. But while dogs can be trained to do many things, the lack of opposable thumbs makes brushing and dispensing toothpaste an insurmountable task. So it's up to you.

Ideally, start while he is young, as early in life as possible. Start 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 best 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.

Tips for Brushing Your Dog's Teeth

Try starting by focusing on a few teeth. Gradually increase the number until you can do clean his 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 gum and tooth meet, are the most important spots. Lifting the cheek with the mouth closed actually allows for better access to the back teeth.

Baking soda mixed with a ground up beef buillion cube and water makes a good canine toothpaste. There are also dog toothpastes that come 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 can lead to vomiting, seizures, and liver problems.)

As always, when learning a new behavior, reward your dog early and often for cooperating. Your treat might be part of the cleaning: According to the Veterinary Oral Health Council, there is a large selection of chews and foods that are beneficial to dental health, including Greenies, Tartar Shield Soft Rawhide Chews, and Science Diet® Oral Care for Dogs.

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. But know that there are more subtle signs of dental distress, such as constant nose licking, reluctance to chew on treats or toys, and pawing the face.

According to holistic pet vet Dr. Gary Richter, your vet should check your dog's teeth during the annual visit. But when you go to the vet for any reason, ask the vet to take a look.

Good dental care is essential to extend your pet's lifespan and ensure a good quality of life.

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