How to Brush Your Dog’s Teeth

Written by Small Door's medical experts

We brush our teeth twice a day to keep them clean and healthy, so it makes sense that we should also brush our dog’s teeth! Frequent brushing can help limit dental disease and bad breath, and improve your dog’s oral health. And when it comes to dogs, good oral hygiene isn’t just about keeping teeth healthy: it can also prevent serious health problems down the line. Check out our video to learn how to brush your pup’s teeth, and read on to find out more about canine dental health.

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Why should you brush your dog’s teeth?

Like humans, dogs can develop oral diseases like periodontal disease and gingivitis, caused by tartar buildup and plaque on your dog’s teeth and underneath their gums. Over time, these conditions can lead to pain, inflammation, infection, tooth decay, and tooth and bone loss. You can reduce the amount of plaque and tartar in your dog’s mouth by regularly brushing your dog’s teeth with a doggy toothpaste.

Keep in mind that oral health isn’t just about preventing tooth decay, which is actually quite rare in dogs. The more serious issues have to do with periodontal disease. Plaque and bacteria can enter your dog’s bloodstream, which can affect other organs like your dog’s heart, liver, and kidneys. Maintaining good oral hygiene for your dog will reduce this risk and improve your dog’s overall health.

When should you brush your dog's teeth?

Ideally, you’ll want to start brushing your dog’s teeth when they’re a puppy to get them acclimated to the process early on and practice good hygiene. However, it’s never too late to start doing so with an adult dog — it might just take some extra training if they’re not already accustomed to it.

Benefits of brushing your dog’s teeth

There are many benefits to brushing your dog’s teeth, including health, quality of life, and lower veterinary costs.

For starters, tooth-brushing improves your dog’s oral health. This is especially important for dogs who typically do not gnaw on chew toys regularly, like small and toy breeds, since certain dental chews can reduce plaque buildup. Dental diseases and complications like tooth root abscesses are painful for dogs (and often expensive to treat).

Speaking of which: dental diseases are often costly! Tooth extractions; heart, kidney, and liver disease; and root canals all require veterinary intervention to treat and resolve. So regular tooth-brushing can save you money, in addition to saving your dog discomfort.

Finally, brushing your dog’s teeth regularly will also improve their breath. Contrary to popular belief, dogs do not naturally have bad “dog breath.” Brushing cleans away the bacteria that causes bad breath, and it reduces the risk of decay and infection, which also lead to bad breath.

How often should you brush your dog’s teeth?

Ideally, you should brush your dog’s teeth every day. However, if that’s not possible, brushing even once per week can be extremely beneficial!

Regular tooth-brushing removes particles of food and bacteria that cause plaque and tartar development, and gives you a regular opportunity to inspect your dog’s mouth. This can help you catch problems like fractured teeth or gum issues before infections set in.

How often to brush puppy teeth

Just like adult dogs, you should brush your puppy’s teeth every day if possible. You may need to work up to this as they get used to the process.

What type of dog toothbrush should I use?

There are several different types of toothbrushes suitable for dogs. The most common are:

  • Finger brushes

  • Specific pet toothbrushes

  • Children’s toothbrushes

Finger brushes are rubber or silicone brushes that slide over your finger like a finger puppet. These brushes are suitable for all dogs and can be great for training, as you have more control over the brush. However, enthusiastic dogs may accidentally bite down on it—with your finger inside.

Pet stores sell toothbrushes designed specifically for dogs. Many of these are double-ended, with a smaller side for dogs with smaller mouths.

Perhaps the best toothbrush for dogs is a regular human toothbrush. Children’s toothbrushes or small-headed toothbrushes with soft bristles work well for large and small breed dogs alike. The soft bristles clean canine teeth without causing discomfort. Some dogs even seem to enjoy electric toothbrushes!

Dental chews are sold in most pet stores and can be used as an occasional treat, but they don’t clean as effectively as regular toothbrushes or finger brushes, and add unnecessary calories to your dog’s diet. Consult your veterinarian about how to make dental chews a part of your dog’s oral hygiene practice.

Toothpaste for dogs

Nearly all pet stores carry toothpaste designed specifically for dogs and come in flavors your pup will enjoy, like peanut butter or chicken.

Can dogs use human toothpaste?

No. Human toothpaste is dangerous for dogs and should never be used to brush their teeth. It contains fluoride and some toothpastes even contain the sweetener xylitol, both of which are extremely toxic to dogs, even in very small amounts.

Can you brush dogs teeth with baking soda

No. Similar to human toothpaste, you should never brush your dog's teeth with baking soda. Baking soda is harmful for dogs if swallowed because it is highly alkaline, which makes it upsetting for canine stomachs and digestive tracts.

Additionally, most dogs will not be receptive to the taste of baking soda, and it’s likely to put them off the toothbrushing process!

How to brush your dog’s teeth

Just like any new activity, teeth brushing requires patience and training. Luckily, the taste of doggy toothpaste acts as its own reward. It’s designed to be ingested, so you don’t need to worry about convincing your dog to spit it out—much more difficult is convincing your dog not to chomp on the toothbrush itself!

Before you start, there are a few things you need to know:

  • Focus on the outside of your dog’s teeth, not the inside, as this is where the majority of tartar tends to accumulate

  • Use slow, gentle strokes

  • Do not force your dog’s mouth open—this can make them frustrated and you may lose their cooperation

Next follow these steps to properly brush your dog’s teeth:

  • Step 1: First, let your dog taste a small amount of toothpaste. Most dogs will find this enticing enough to hold their attention. Then, using your finger as the ‘brush’, gently rub the toothpaste onto your dog’s teeth and gums to get them accustomed to the process.

  • Step 2: Once your dog is used to this, which may take a week to a month, you can progress to using a piece of gauze to rub against the teeth, getting them used to the rubbing feeling. 

  • Step 3: Next, put a pea-sized amount of toothpaste on your toothbrush or finger brush. Gently lift one side of your dog’s upper lip and brush in small, circular motions for a few strokes. Stop, praise your dog, and repeat these steps until you have brushed the outside of all their teeth.

Some dogs enjoy brushing more than others. Your dog may tolerate brushing immediately, or it may take days or even weeks to get them comfortable. Take things slow to keep the experience stress-free for your dog: you may find that you are only able to brush a few teeth or make one pass over their teeth when you first begin. This is perfectly normal.

Unfortunately, some dogs never learn to tolerate tooth-brushing. Wiping a piece of gauze over these dogs’ teeth two to three times a week can still remove plaque and bacteria and improve oral health. You can also ask your veterinarian for assistance at your next check-up.

How long should you spend brushing my dog's teeth?

Brushing your dog’s teeth doesn’t need to take long. You only need to spend about 30 seconds per side or 1 minute for the whole brushing session.

However, if your dog isn’t used to having their teeth brushed, they may be uncooperative making it difficult to clean their whole mouth at once. If this sounds like your dog, try cleaning their teeth in short bursts — stop every 5-10 seconds to give them a break and some positive reinforcement as they get used to having their teeth brushed.

Health and safety precautions to take when brushing your dog’s teeth

Your dog’s mouth is home to a lot of bacteria, so you’ll want to take some basic health and safety precautions for yourself during the process. Always start and end by thoroughly washing your hands with warm water and soap.

Make sure to thoroughly rinse out your dog’s toothbrush after each session. Just like human toothbrushes, you’ll want to replace your dog’s toothbrush brush every 3 months and keep separate toothbrushes for each dog if you have multiple pets.

Does my dog still need a veterinary dental cleaning if I brush their teeth?

Yes. Brushing reduces the amount of tartar, plaque, and harmful bacteria in your dog’s mouth, but it doesn’t entirely eliminate them. Even with brushing, your dog will still need dental cleanings periodically, just as people do. Your vet can thoroughly clean your dog’s teeth and gums, and also look for cavities, fractures, and other dental issues.

Do I need to brush my cat's teeth?

Cats develop plaque and tartar just like dogs, and so all the benefits of tooth brushing apply to them too! However, cats are often less inclined than dogs to allow owners to brush their teeth. We definitely recommend trying to brush your cat’s teeth, using the same method described above. If they just won’t tolerate it, wiping their teeth with some gauze and feline toothpaste will wipe away most of the plaque, and is far better than nothing.

Summary of how to brush your dog’s teeth

Brushing your dog’s teeth is worth it. It may not be fun for either of you, but brushing their teeth will pay off in the long run, saving you money and saving your pet a lot of pain. And remember, if you’re having trouble with tooth-brushing, just ask one of Small Door’s vets for tips, advice, and help!

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