Nearly all dogs develop dental problems and stinky breath. Our pet expert offers easy tips for improving your dog’s oral health.
Good dental hygiene for dogs goes beyond improving pungent breath. About 80 percent of dogs develop dental disease by age four. That not only affects canine health but also leads to plenty of other problems down the road. And veterinary dentistry procedures hit you in the heart and the pocketbook. But learning how to clean dogs’ teeth isn’t typically the hottest topic in any pet care manual.
Because dogs don’t open wide and say “ah,” veterinarians must use pricey anesthesia to perform root canals, extract a tooth, or straighten crooked fangs. Pets almost never get cavities filled, though. Damaged or decayed teeth get removed, and plaque—it looks like yellow or brown deposits on the teeth and leads to tooth loss and pain—is cleaned away.
You can reduce the frequency of required professional cleanings by learning how to clean dogs’ teeth at home. So grab a dog toothbrush, read the step-by-step instructions below, and get ready to brush your dog’s teeth daily.
How to clean your dog’s teeth
Cleaning your dog’s teeth is a part of dog grooming and is just as important as giving your dog a bath. You already know how to brush your own teeth, and the same technique applies to cleaning your dog’s teeth.
But your dog won’t willingly open wide for you. So part of cleaning its teeth includes teaching it what to expect so it won’t feel scared. Training your dog to accept teeth cleaning keeps it healthy and can also improve the bond you share with each other.
Teaching your dog takes time. Don’t rush or force your pet. It may take three days or three weeks before your pup is ready to let you clean its teeth. But once it understands and accepts the procedure, the teeth cleaning won’t take more than a few minutes a day. Ideally, you’ll want to clean your dog’s teeth after each meal, just like humans do. But if you can manage once a day, or even two or three times a week, count that as a win.
- Chew toy: Dogs love to chew anyway, but a favorite toy helps with training. Choose a non-fabric toy that won’t hold moisture. Something your dog likes to hold or carry gets bonus points. A dental toy for big dogs, or one sized for smaller dogs, is ideal.
- Dental Treats: Use dental treats along with the toy to teach your dog to accept holding something in its mouth. The treats reward the behavior you want your pet to learn, so it trusts that even if you ask it to do something weird, it’ll get good things out of it.
- Bath Towel: No, you won’t dry him off with the towel. But toothbrushing can involve drooling and head-shaking that leads to dribbled toothpaste. A towel provides an easy-to-clean surface for training and eventual teeth cleaning. Using the same towel each time signals to your dog what happens next.
- Dog toothpaste: Never use human toothpaste with your dog. Dogs can’t spit and shouldn’t swallow the fluoride that human products contain. Dogs also hate the foaming action. Instead, choose a toothpaste designed specifically for dogs. Pet toothpaste contains flavors dogs love, like London broil.
- Gauze pads: You don’t have to use a toothbrush, and dogs may accept other materials more readily. Gauze pads work well and are disposable. They also work as a first step. Once your pup accepts cleanings with gauze, you can move on to other cleaning options.
- Wipe: A washcloth also works to clean dog teeth. Simply wrap it around your index finger and apply the paste. As an added bonus, you have a towel handy if you need to wipe off your dog’s face. Another option is using dental wipes for dogs.
- Finger toothbrush: Dogs are funny. They’ll pick up nearly anything in their mouths but object to you sticking something weird inside. Yours may more easily accept a finger—or a finger toothbrush. You might find it easier to use too.
- Baby toothbrush: Baby’s first toothbrush, with its extra-oft bristles, may work for some dogs, especially those with tiny mouths.
- Dog toothbrush: If you like, you can work up to using an official dog-specific toothbrush.
- Dental rinse: There are products you can use to rinse off your dog’s teeth, as well as those you can add to your dog’s water, to help keep its teeth clean.
Ready to get brushing? The steps below will guide you from training to regular brushings.
1. Gather supplies
Bring everything you plan to use to the location you’ll be cleaning your dog’s teeth. You may want to keep teeth-cleaning tools in the same place as your other grooming supplies. Your pup should eventually enjoy the experience and expect the event. To speed up the process, choose somewhere your dog already associates with fun times or yummy rewards, like in the kitchen near the food bowl.
And think about a convenient schedule. Dogs love routine, so cleaning your pet’s teeth in the same location and at the time can help your furry friend view teeth cleaning as part of a normal day.
2. Touch your dog’s mouth
Have a small dog? Spread the towel on your lap so your pet can sit during the cleaning. For big dogs, lay the towel on the floor and kneel next to your pup. The towel becomes your dog’s cue that it’s teeth-cleaning time.
Start with petting your pup, paying particular attention to the outside of its mouth and lips. If it’ll allow it and you feel comfortable, let it mouth your fingers. Even better, slip a finger inside its cheek to stroke the sides of its teeth. It doesn’t need to open its jaws at all. Its tongue keeps the inside surface of its teeth clean, so you only need to take care of the outside surface. Do this for five minutes and offer a treat each time your dog lets you stroke its gums or touch a tooth.
Repeat this step once or twice a day for three to five days. After the dog accepts your handling of its mouth, move to the next step.
3. Flavor the toy
Spread dog toothpaste on a non-fabric toy and let your pet lick it off. Many dogs enjoy the paste-like treat. It has ingredients that help clean teeth even without brushing, so that’s a great first step. You want to associate the toy with the yummy flavor.
4. Prop open its mouth
If your dog wants to take the toy into its mouth, let it. But use your hand to hold its mouth closed around the toy. That way, the flavored toy it holds and enjoys also props open its jaws just enough for you to clean its teeth. Spend about five minutes playing with the toy, taking it from your dog to add paste, and then letting your dog hold the toy while you grasp its muzzle. Repeat this step once or twice a day for several days in a row.
Don’t let your dog swipe the toy away to chew. Reserve this special toy for teeth cleaning so your pet only gets the yummy paste and other treats for this purpose. When it acts excited at the sight of the towel, toy, and paste, move on to the next step.
5. Prepare the applicator
Whether you’re using a finger toothbrush, gauze pad, or a washcloth, you’ll want to spread dog toothpaste onto the brushing material. You won’t need a lot of paste, so just add enough to cover the end of your finger.
6. Clean teeth on one side
With one hand wrapped around your dog’s muzzle as it holds the toothpaste-coated toy, use the toothpaste-covered applicator to wipe the outside of its teeth on one side of its mouth. Do the top jaw first, and if your dog is still fine with it, finish with the bottom teeth on the same side. You don’t need to scrub—simply wipe the paste from side to side.
Release its muzzle and remove the toy. The dog will lick its lips and savor the paste you’ve left on its teeth. Quit for the day, after offering your pup a few more treats for being such a good dog.
7. Clean teeth on the other side
The next day, repeat the previous step. This time, you’ll wipe the teeth on the other side of your dog’s mouth. Remember, there’s no need to clean the inside of the teeth since the dog’s tongue keeps those surfaces clean.
Poking inside its mouth also risks an accidental bite should his jaws slip off the toy. Just wipe the outside of the teeth.
Always quit before your dog asks you to stop; it’ll leave your pup wanting more. Praise and treat generously.
8. Clean all its teeth
After two or three days of one-sided teeth cleanings, your dog should understand the process. Hopefully, it also looks forward to this teeth-cleaning routine. Now it’s time to graduate to cleaning all of the teeth at once. This shouldn’t take more than five minutes, including preparation time. If possible, brush daily.
9. Add a dental rinse
In between brushes, you can add a dental rinse to your dog’s drinking water. This will keep its mouth fresh and help improve its overall dental hygiene.
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