Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.
Providing Dental Care for Pets
Conventional wisdom tells us we need to brush our teeth twice a day, but what about our pets? Most have accepted the unfortunate occurrence of dog breath as an unavoidable part of caring for an animal, but what seems like a normal occurrence might be a significant disease brewing beneath the surface.
Much of the conventional wisdom we associate with human dental care should also apply to our pets. Ideally, dogs should have their teeth brushed every day, and the same benefits humans might get from the rotating bristles of an electric toothbrush exist for them as well.
Cassie's Story: Why I Started Using an Electric Toothbrush for My Dog
I used to believe that raw meaty bones provided the best dental care for dogs. I adopted my first dog, Cassie, in 2003, where she was estimated to be 1-2 years old. Her teeth have always had yellowing and visible tartar that I would manage with occasional teeth brushing and manual scraping with scaling tools. She had never had a professional cleaning.
Later I found that with chewing sheep bones, my dog's teeth looked significantly better, however, one day she broke her right premolar on a pork bone around the age of 13. After much deliberation and worries about anesthesia, I decided to get a board-certified dental surgeon to extract the fractured tooth and clean her teeth. I authorized the vet to remove any other 'bad' teeth, and to my surprise he removed 5 additional teeth that were mobile. She also had periodontal disease and gingivitis. In the end, her broken tooth was a blessing because otherwise I wouldn't have discovered these problems and made a change.
To avoid future surgeries as she was in her teens, I decided to try and commit to cleaning her teeth every day. I stopped using raw bones because they were bacteria-laden (if not for dogs, for the owners). I also noticed that her discharge instructions stated that a rotary toothbrush was superior to regular ones.
When I first started, I would miss the occasional day, but then I amped up the brushing until I eventually succeeded at brushing once a day with an electric toothbrush. Periodontal disease is irreversible, but her teeth improved dramatically. Our home-visiting vet said that "they look like puppy teeth", and another vet excitedly exclaimed how happy she was with her teeth and that ''some dogs have naturally clean teeth, but Cassie's looked unusually great', a year later. I got the impression that she wasn't used to seeing older canine teeth that were regularly brushed.
Clean Teeth Could Extend Your Dog's Life
Studies have shown that oral health often correlates with the health of vital organs for humans and pets. Many people don't know that bad teeth can lead to heart problems by introducing bacteria systemically, which in senior pets can be fatal. I sincerely believe that many conditions that affect pets in their golden years can be prevented with good dental care, and we can enjoy our pets a little longer if we eliminate these issues.
My dog was a senior so it was especially important to keep up with her oral care. This is why I deemed the anesthesia risk worth it. My dog enjoyed at least 2 more years after the procedure with continued dental care and excellent heart health. CT scans showed she had no enlargement of vital organs or kidney issues in the 2nd to last month of her life. Unfortunately, she passed away due to cancer-related complications in March of 2017 at around the age of 15 to 16.
What Is the Optimal Way to Care for Your Dog's Teeth
Of course, looks aren't everything. My dog still had periodontal disease, and some dogs can have deceptively clean-looking teeth but have underlying disease underneath the gum line, which is why you should avoid anesthesia-free dental cleaning.
But in this case, daily teeth cleaning is an evidence-based treatment that is highly effective for both humans and dogs. It's importance is imperative. Ideally, you should manage your dog's oral health by:
- Brushing the teeth once a day.
- Taking your dog to the vet for a deep cleaning under anesthesia annually.
- Providing safe dental chews that are not hard enough to fracture teeth. No antlers, ice cubes, bones, or commercial chews that violate the 'knee cap rule'.
- Avoid overuse of items that degrade teeth like tennis balls'
- Choose evidence-based toothpastes, dental rinses, and chews.
How to brush
The most important part of your dog's mouth to brush is where the tooth meets the gum line. This is where bacteria can collect to start the formation of gingivitis and periodontal disease. Even though yellow teeth might look bad, the visible tartar on your pet's teeth is actually not as harmful as the unseen sub-gingival plaque that leads to disease.
Aim your brush at a 45 degree angle where the tooth is emerging. Brush EACH tooth, but the teeth used for chewing (premolars) are especially important. You can reward your dog after each session with a treat (I used dental treats!) This made my dog come running to get her teeth brushed.
Why electric toothbrushes?
Most dentists recommend electric toothbrushes over manual toothbrushes for humans. What makes electric toothbrushes better is not technically that they provide a superior clean, but that it is easier to do so. In order to receive the benefits of brushing, it must be done properly. Every tooth must be brushed a certain number of times to ward off disease. Electric toothbrushes cover a larger surface area much faster. According to Webmd:
"When you brush by hand, you make about 300 strokes per minute. Compare that with the thousands -- in some cases tens of thousands -- of strokes per minute a power one makes."
Since dogs generally do not enjoy getting their teeth brushed, getting the job done quickly but thoroughly is of utmost importance. If your dog can tolerate an electric toothbrush, you can brush the teeth faster and more efficiently.
Electric Toothbrush Pros and Cons for Dogs
- Provides more brush strokes
- Covers a larger surface area
- Achieves adequate strokes in less time than regular brushes
- Cost is higher
- Noise and motion might scare dogs
Types of Power Brushes
|Rotary||Sonic and Ultrasonic||Ionic|
This brush moves in a circular motion and has 3,000 to 7,500 strokes per minute
Has about 10x the strokes of rotary brushes (31,000 bspm)
The brush doesn't move, there is a low electric current that attacks plaque
The type of brush I currently use.
These brushes tend to have a larger size, so perhaps better for giant dog breeds.
This is the first electric toothbrush marketed specfically for dogs that I bought.
Which brush is best?
We currently do not have enough evidence to determine if rotary, sonic, or ionic brushes are best in humans, so that would be likewise for dogs. However, we know that moving brushes can clean a tooth more efficiently. I would suggest picking a battery-powered toothbrush according to the size of your dog. Some models have a bigger brush head which would be better for a bigger dog. You also don't want a brush that's overely bulky so that it can comfortably fit between the space of your dog's jaw and lips.
Since pet-specific power brushes are scarce, you can just as well use products meant for humans. Child-specific brushes can be used for toy breeds of dogs. You can find these brushes in grocery stores, Amazon, and plenty of other places. Use products approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) like CET toothpaste (my dog loved the taste of this), and other optional products include dental rinses and chews.
A small number of electric brushes are made specifically for pets
How to Train Your Dog to Accept Brushing
I was lucky, my dog was very good at putting up with getting her teeth brushed. I had occasionally brushed her teeth with a regular brush before switching to electric.
Start with a regular brush or with the electric toothbrush off. If your dog is not used to getting its teeth brushed at all, you might want to start with a finger brush or just your finger, with a little baby food on it. Your pet should be completely used to having its teeth stroked with an apparatus before moving on to electric. Reward with a small treat after a successful session. My dog loved dental treats like Greenies so that was a perfect time to give her those.
Get your pet used to the noise. Turn the toothbrush on near your dog's head and reward with a favored treat if he doesn't respond negatively. If your dog is afraid, try and find a way to distract him with praise or treats. Do not move on until he had been appropriately desensitized. You can place the brush under the dog's lips if he seems comfortable. Again, the key here is to reward your dog with a small treat if he responds appropriately. Take little baby steps.
Brush the teeth. Once you feel your dog is ready, attempt to brush a small portion. You do not need to move the brush, just pull back the lips and slightly touch the rotating or vibrating bristles on the tooth. Praise and reward for any tolerance of this. Eventually, you will need to brush each tooth to get the full benefits, so do not rush this process. A dog must be accepting of a full mouth cleaning and any negative reaction to brushing can be tough to break once it becomes ingrained.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.