Brushing Your Dog’s Teeth: Why It Matters

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on February 15, 2023
5 min read

You wouldn’t go to bed without grabbing your toothbrush, but when was the last time you brushed your dog’s teeth? Dental care should be part of their regular health routine, too. 

At least once a year, your vet should examine your dog’s teeth for any potential problems. That includes checking for signs of gum disease and broken teeth. They also need to see how much plaque and tartar have built up.

Plaque is a sticky coating of bacteria that forms on teeth. If it’s not removed, it can harden into tartar, which is more difficult to get rid of. Tartar can lead to gum disease, and that can cause infections and tooth loss.

By the time they’re 3 years old, most dogs have some signs of gum disease. It may be diagnosed as gingivitis in its mild stages. But in advanced stages, it can be periodontal disease. Your pup’s gums might start to pull back, or recede, from their teeth. That creates gaps, which can let bacteria from their mouth enter their bloodstream. That can lead to infections.

The best way to manage dental issues is to prevent them. Regularly brushing your dog’s teeth can help keep their teeth and gums healthy.

If you’ve never brushed your dog’s teeth before, it can take time for them to get used to it. The younger they are when you start, the easier it’ll be. But you can start when they’re any age.

Use a toothpaste specifically made for dogs and a soft-bristled dog toothbrush. Unlike human toothpaste, dog toothpaste doesn’t have to be spit out. It’s designed to be licked or swallowed.

Dental chews can also help prevent plaque and tartar buildup. Be sure to check the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) website for good options, or look for their seal of approval on products.

Helpful tips for brushing your dog’s teeth include:

Find a quiet spot. Choose a place where your dog feels comfortable and won’t be easily distracted. If your pup is small, you can put them in your lap with their head facing away from you. If they’re larger, try sitting in a chair with them sitting next to you.

Take your time. Don’t try to brush your teeth as you’re rushing out the door or hurrying to get dinner made. Your dog can pick up on your stress. Instead, find a time when you’re not rushed and you can go as slowly as needed.

Practice. Start small by rubbing your dog’s teeth with your finger or a soft piece of cloth. Don’t pull open your dog’s mouth. Instead, gently raise your dog’s lip, and slip your finger inside, on the outside of their teeth and gums. Rub just a couple teeth at time to let them get used to you touching their teeth. When they seem comfortable, put a dab of dog toothpaste on your finger and let them smell and lick it.

You could also allow your dog to taste the toothpaste first. Since they’re flavored for dogs, yours may love the taste and be excited about  brushing sessions.

Brush slowly. Once your dog accepts the rubbing motion and the toothpaste taste, combine them. Start by putting a little toothpaste on your finger, and then eventually move to using a brush. Use soft strokes, and try to reach throughout the mouth, especially at their gumline.

Some people are able to brush their dog’s teeth every day or sometimes even twice a day. But you should aim for at least three times a week.

It only takes a few days for plaque to harden into tartar. If you go too long between brushings, you may need to see a veterinarian for removal. If your dog’s teeth have that yellow-brown buildup along their gum line, or if their gums are bleeding or puffy, it could be time for a professional cleaning.

With regular brushing, you should be able to go longer between professional dental cleanings at your vet’s office. You may not need professional cleanings at all. But some dogs still need them even if they get regular dental care at home. That’s because of things like genetics. 

When your vet cleans your dog’s teeth, they’ll put them under anesthesia. Your pet may need X-rays so that your vet can study their dental roots and jaw health. They’ll also look for growths, infections, or broken teeth. Your vet might suggest pulling teeth that aren’t healthy.

Your vet may also recommend your dog see a veterinary dentist. That’s a vet who has extra training and certification in dentistry.

There are some vets who do cleanings without anesthesia, but the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) doesn’t recommend that.

You probably don’t need anesthesia during your teeth cleaning because you understand what’s happening. Dogs obviously can’t.

Anesthesia allows your vet to clean and examine below the gumline, where most dental disease is found. Although there are some risks, pets aren’t stressed under anesthesia and there’s less chance of them getting hurt during the exam. But your dog may have other health conditions that make anesthesia more risky or too risky. Your vet will discuss this with you before proceeding. Be sure to ask them any questions you have. 

Along with examining, cleaning, and polishing your dog’s teeth, some vets may recommend sealants. These help prevent plaque and tartar buildup, especially if you’re unable to brush your dog’s teeth.

Dental chews. Some dogs just have a hard time letting someone brush their teeth. In that case, dental chews may help. Though they aren’t an equal substitute for brushing, they can help keep your dog’s mouth healthy.

These edible treats take a long time to chew. The longer time chomping helps clear buildup from a dog’s teeth. Look for chews with the VOHC seal of approval.

Diet. Be sure to feed your dog high-quality pet food. Several studies have found that dry kibble can have a positive impact on their dental health. The action of chewing crunchy food can fight tartar and plaque buildup. There are also foods specially designed for dental health.