Brushing Your Dog's Teeth: Why it Matters

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on September 27, 2012
5 min read

Have you brushed your dog's teeth today?

If the thought sounds a little nutty to you -- on par with giving your pup a pedicure, perhaps -- you might want to have a chat with your vet. She’ll  probably tell you that regular oral care for your pooch is just as important to its long-term well-being as it is to yours.

It's true that dogs went thousands of years without toothbrushes, oral cleanings, and dental X-rays, but so did people. And our mouths, just like those of our four-legged friends, suffered for it -- with gum disease, tooth loss, chronic pain, and more. Also, in those days, people and animals did not live as long as we do today.

Now most of us see the benefit of daily brushing, twice yearly cleanings, and regular dental X-rays for ourselves. And though dogs don't eat the wide range of cavity-causing foods we enjoy, they need regular dental care for many of the same reasons we do:

  • To prevent the build-up of plaque, tartar, and calculus
  • To check for and prevent gingivitis and gum disease
  • To look for trauma, such as broken or fractured teeth
  • To inspect for developmental or orthodontic problems


By the time they are 3 years old, most dogs already show signs of gum disease (also called periodontal disease). As a result, dogs may be at risk for some of the same problems that chronic infection can cause in people, including heart, liver, and kidney problems.

"Pets don't show pain from dental disease," says Tony M. Woodward, a veterinary dentist in Colorado. "When they're in pain I wish dogs would paw at their faces or stop eating, but they don't."

As a matter of fact, your dog can have a mouthful of abscessed teeth and still eat just fine, Woodward says.

"That's the main reason why people should care about dental problems in pets: It hurts them," he says.

  1. Get your dog regular exams and cleanings. Good oral care doesn't start and stop with tooth brushing. It should include regular dental exams, including X-rays and a professional cleaning under general anesthesia. "The goal is to maintain oral health, function of the teeth, and a pain-free state," says Colleen O'Morrow, DVM, a veterinary dentist in Manitoba, Canada.
  2. Start young. If you've got a puppy, now is the time to include brushing in his good-manners training. But have no fear, even pets in their teens can learn to love a good brushing -- if you take it slow. 
  3. Brush gradually and gently. Start by putting a little toothpaste on their brush and let your dog lick it off. Then try touching the toothbrush to your dog’s teeth. After that, brush for a few seconds. Take a month or two to introduce her to this new habit. When your dog is ready for a real brushing, raise her lips to expose teeth and gums. Then brush from the gum line to the tip of the tooth. Avoid opening your pet's mouth, which can lead to panic and struggling. 
  4. Use toothpaste made specifically for dogs. Toothpastes for humans contain certain types of fluorides and detergents that are meant to be spit out after you brush. Your dog will swallow toothpaste, so buy a product meant for pets. Pet toothpaste can come in a host of flavors, including poultry, beef, seafood, malt, peanut, and vanilla-mint. 
  5. Use a pet-specific toothbrush. The heads of brushes made for people are too wide for a pet's mouth, and even soft bristles are usually too hard. Talk to your veterinarian about the best toothbrush for your dog. Your vet may suggest a soft power brush. Or some vets suggest a finger brush that slips over your finger like a thimble. But avoid finger brushes if you have a small dog; your finger is just too big to be a comfortable fit for your pet's mouth. And if you have more than one pet, get each pet its own brush to avoid spreading germs. 
  6. Brush in back. For pets, dental problems are often most severe in the back, upper teeth. So it's most important to brush the outsides of the big teeth there, say the pros. 
  7. Chew on this. Dogs benefit greatly from chewing every day on something that helps keep teeth clean.
  8. Make tooth brushing fun and rewarding. Before and after brushing, praise, pet and play with your dog. "I like to combine brushing with a positive reinforcement," says Barry L. Rathfon, DVM, an Idaho veterinarian whose practice is limited to veterinary dentistry. One of the best reinforcements, he says, is to brush your pup's teeth just before a meal. To remind yourself, put your pet's toothbrush near his food supply.

It's true that some dogs just don't want to have their teeth brushed, and that's OK. But don't give up too soon. About 80% of dogs will allow you to brush their teeth, Woodward says, even older dogs. That's if you start gradually and make it fun.

  1. Don’t try to open your dog's mouth. "As soon as you open the pet's mouth it will struggle," says Sharon Hoffman, DVM, a veterinary dentist in Jacksonville, Fla. The key to a comfortable brushing is to keep your pet's mouth closed while gently lifting its lips, Hoffman says. 
  2. Don’t brush a 'dirty' mouth. Before you begin making a habit of brushing your dog's (or cat's) teeth, you'll want your pet to have a professional cleaning. "Gums are very vascular," says O'Morrow. "You don't want to be pushing bacteria into the bloodstream by brushing a dirty mouth."
  3. Don’t scrub your dog’s teeth. Just like yours, your dog's teeth and gums can be damaged if you brush too hard, so take it easy.


Try as you might, there are a few pets who just won't let their teeth be brushed. The good news is you can still protect your dog’s teeth with a combination of home and professional care.

First, feed your pet a good quality pet food. Ask your vet if your dog needs a "dental diet." Vets recommend looking for products approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC), which researches manufacturer claims for dental-health foods, chews, and rinses. VOHC is the pet version of the American Dental Association (ADA) seal of approval on oral health products for people.

Second, offer your pet enjoyable chew time daily with pet-safe toys, preferably ones carrying the VOHC seal. You can find a list of VOHC-approved chews and toys at

Third, take your pet to the vet regularly for oral examinations, dental X-rays, and annual cleanings done under general anesthesia. Some pets may need professional care more frequently. Your vet will help you decide on the best schedule.

While you might not notice signs of dental disease because dogs hide most dental pain, you will notice the night-and-day change in your pet when oral problems are finally taken care of, Woodward says. Your precious pooch will act younger, more playful, and be more active.

Your dog is your best friend. Return the favor and make sure your dog is healthy and pain-free. Daily tooth brushings and regular oral care are a wag-worthy way of showing your dog how much you care.

Show Sources


Colleen O'Morrow, DVM, veterinary dentist, Winnipeg, Canada.

Barry L. Rathfon, DVM, veterinary dentist, Idaho.

Sharon Hoffman, DVM, veterinary dentist; North Florida Veterinary Dentistry and Oral Surgery, Jacksonville, Fla.

Tony M. Woodward DVM, veterinary dentist; Animal Dental Care, Colorado Springs, Colo.

American Veterinary Medical Association: "Dental Health: How to Brush Your Pet’s Teeth."

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