Dogs cannot brush their own teeth. This may seem like stating the obvious, but there are a huge number of dogs out there with severe dental disease that desperately need treatment. Most owners are unaware of their dog’s teeth problems until either a vet checks the dog’s mouth, or the mouth becomes so sore and breath so foul that the owner’s attention is drawn to it.
As your dentist will advise you, preventative dental care is a much better strategy than waiting for a problem to occur and then dealing with it. Dogs do not tend to suffer from cavities as humans do, but often get painful periodontal (gum) disease.
Are some dogs more likely to get dental disease than others?
Yes. There is a lot of breed variation in the susceptibility to periodontal disease.
Toy breeds such as Yorkshire Terriers have very soft gums and, if their teeth are not brushed regularly, often require dental scaling and polishing at just a few years of age.
Larger breeds such as Golden Retrievers and Labradors have harder gums and rarely need any dental treatment (brushing is still recommended though). However, any pet can develop dental disease and any good vet will check a dog's mouth as part of a routine check up to advise whether any dental treatment is necessary.
Clearly diet plays a major role in the development of dental disease. Dogs that eat a dry biscuit-based diet are less likely to get periodontal disease compared with dogs on wet canned food, merely due to the crunchy hard food helping to stop tartar attaching to the teeth.
Some owners supplement their dog’s diet with chews specifically designed to help clean teeth. However, just like in humans, diet alone is not enough for some dogs and brushing may be necessary if you are to avoid the prospect of dental scaling and polishing under general anesthetic further down the line.
How Do I Know If My Dog Has Dental Disease?
The common signs to look out for are:
- Discoloration of the teeth, with yellow/brown tartar (known as calculus) adhering to the teeth, mainly on the cheek side
- Reddening of the gums (known as gingivitis)
- Recession on the gum to expose some of the tooth root
- Bad breath (halitosis)
- Drooling more than usual
- Reluctance to bite on hard objects such as sticks and toys
- Difficulty eating dry biscuit-type foods
How Do I Go About Brushing My Dog's Teeth?
Firstly, buy a suitable toothbrush. Human toothbrushes are usually too hard for dogs, though can be used if they have soft bristles. Ideally you want a toothbrush with a long handle and an angled head to fit the mouth better, and extra soft bristles. An alternative is using a finger brush, which fits over the tip of your finger.
Next, find a suitable toothpaste. Dogs do not really like the mint taste of human toothpastes, so the whole operation will run more smoothly if you use toothpaste designed for pets. Some pet toothpastes come in meaty flavors so that your pet enjoys the experience. These pet toothpastes usually contain enzymes that help control plaque. Fluoride may be incorporated to help control bacteria.
Top Tip: Try placing the toothpaste between the bristles if you can rather than on the top of them, as this will achieve better cleaning.
Most pets will accept their teeth being brushed if you are gentle. It is much easier if you start the habit when they are puppies so that they are accustomed to the procedure, but even older dogs can grow to accept it. The outside of the teeth (the cheek side) is the most important to clean, as the dogs tongue helps clean the inside of the teeth to an extent.
The toothbrush bristles should be placed where the teeth and gums meet at a 45 degree angle. The movement should be in an oval pattern. Try to maneuver the bristle ends gently into the area around the base of the tooth as well as into the gap between the teeth. Aim for ten short back-and-forth motions, covering several teeth at a time, and then move the brush to a new location.
When starting for the first time, do it twice daily without toothpaste for a week or two. This way, your dog will become familiar with the feel of the brush quickly, and you can then start doing it with toothpaste. In the long term, brushing twice a week is usually adequate.
My Dog's Teeth Are Already in A Bad State, Should I be Worried About Getting His/Her Teeth Done at the Vet's?
As long as your dog does not have a pre-existing heart or respiratory problem, you need not be overly worried. Dental scaling and polishing is done on a daily basis at many veterinary clinics, so it is considered a routine procedure. All anesthetics carry risk though.
Most clinics will run pre-anesthetic blood tests for patients as a matter of protocol, to check on liver and kidney function. If your dog has severe periodontal disease, he/she may require teeth to be extracted. This is not something you should worry about in itself, as it is much better for your dog to have no tooth than a painful tooth.
If you think your dog might require professional dental treatment, you should book an appointment with your vet as soon as possible. Many dogs develop a new lease of life when their mouth suddenly becomes pain-free. In fact, dental treatment may be the greatest gift you could ever give your pet.
Content reviewed by a veterinarian