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How to Protect Your Dog From Tooth and Gum Disease

Alison is a freelance writer on health, nutrition, skincare, and pets, especially cats and dogs.

Oral health is just as important in dogs as it is in humans. Here are ways to keep your dog's teeth healthy.

Oral health is just as important in dogs as it is in humans. Here are ways to keep your dog's teeth healthy.

Oral Health Is Often Overlooked by Dog Owners

It is astonishing that with dental disease affecting around eighty percent of dogs once they get to three years of age, many owners who take great care of their pets' diet, exercise, and grooming, neglect to pay attention to teeth cleaning as an important part of regular care.

Regular teeth cleaning for dogs can help prevent many oral diseases.

Ellie loves her hide chews, they help keep her teeth free from plaque and tartar

Ellie loves her hide chews, they help keep her teeth free from plaque and tartar

How to Clean Your Dog's Teeth

  • Human toothpaste is not suitable and you should not try to use it. Also, please note that mouthwashes designed for human use are definitely not suitable, either. The ones that work best are those that have an enzyme action, as these kill bacteria and have a residual effect if you don't rinse the mouth afterward. These pastes will also remove the build-up of plaque, and because they come in doggy flavors like chicken or beef, it's easy to find one that your dog enjoys (although you might have to try a couple of different brands).
  • With my own small Jack Russell, Ellie, the easiest way to clean her teeth is with a finger brush. These are not only simple to use and quite gentle but also fit securely on your finger so there is no worry of it slipping off in the dog's mouth.

    For larger dogs with back teeth that are further away, a longer brush would be more suitable than a finger brush for reaching these. You can buy them on Amazon or from most pet stores. My Auntie used a long-handle toothbrush on her Golden Retriever, Remus. She liked it because of the angled heads and the two different head sizes making it easier to get into all those hard to reach areas!

  • How frequently you should clean your dog's teeth must be your decision. Plaque that begins to build up on teeth after eating, will begin to harden in around 24 hours in some dogs and up to 48 hours in others. This means that for most dogs, a daily brushing will be okay. If you make it part of your daily routine and do it at the same time each day, perhaps after your pet has eaten dinner, it becomes second nature and does not get forgotten.

How to Teach Your Dog to Accept Tooth Brushing

  • If you have never brushed your dog's teeth before, the best way to begin is to put a little of your chosen toothpaste on a finger and rub the front teeth, very gently, during a cuddle or quiet time together. If this is accepted, do the same with the side teeth by gently lifting the lip. Persevere and it will pay off!
  • Once your dog is happy with this procedure, let him taste the toothpaste and then use a finger toothbrush, with a little smear of paste on it. Take it slowly and gently and most dogs will happily accept teeth cleaning and be licking the brush as you go!
  • If you have major problems or have concerns that you are not cleaning effectively, check with one of the Nurses at your Vet practice, they will be able to give you some tips and reassure you.
Ellie loves ice cream as an occasional treat and that's okay because we take care of her teeth and gums!

Ellie loves ice cream as an occasional treat and that's okay because we take care of her teeth and gums!

Using an Electric Toothbrush on a Dog

If you have an electric toothbrush, you might want to take a look at the little dog in the video below. Her owner uses a Sonicare toothbrush and she seems to love it when used in combination with the chicken flavored toothpaste.

The little dog above seems very happy to accept having her teeth cleaned using an electric toothbrush. My own dog is frightened of the sound of the motor and the feeling of the vibrations to it's not something I could use with her.

However, electric toothbrushes are recommended by Dentists for their human patients as being more effective at removing plaque, so it might be worth a try if you already have an electric toothbrush and can use a spare cleaning head to see what your dog thinks.

I would definitely recommend not trying this until your dog is completely happy with the manual toothbrush, or finger brush method I describe above.

Checking Your Dog's Mouth

It is a good idea to get into the habit of looking carefully at your dog’s mouth about once a week. Getting your pet used to having his teeth and gums inspected from an early age should make this an easy process.

Most dogs will happily submit to this, especially if they have been primed to expect a treat once the procedure is over. Just lift the lips and inspect the gums and then gently open his mouth and take a good look at the inside faces of the teeth, especially the large teeth at the back of the mouth.

Some breeds, particularly the short-nosed or 'toy' breeds often have problems with overcrowding that makes tooth and gum disease more likely as no matter how good they are at chewing their food or even treats designed to clean teeth, they will never be able to remove all the plaque and tartar.

Healthy teeth and gums make for sweet-smelling breath - much nicer for everyone!

Healthy teeth and gums make for sweet-smelling breath - much nicer for everyone!

Spotting Potential Mouth Problems

Quite apart for the build-up of plaque and tartar that looks unsightly and causes the breath to smell bad there are some mouth problems that can be very unpleasant. Below is a list of the main things to be on the lookout for.

  1. Bad breath, otherwise known as halitosis is probably the first sign you will notice that your dog has any sort of gum or tooth problem. The smell is caused either by the bacteria that grow on particles of food that become trapped between the teeth or by infections that start in the gums themselves.
  2. Gingivitis is an inflammation of the gums and gets its name from the scientific name for gums (gingival) and the suffix –itis that means inflammation. Just like in humans, the symptoms of red, inflamed or even bleeding gums and the accompanying foul-smelling breath can all be improved by regularly cleaning your dog’s teeth.
  3. Left untreated, swollen and inflamed gums develop a build-up of hard calculus or tartar. Regular cleaning can avoid this, but it can also be removed during dental surgery by your Vet.
  4. Signs of Periodontal disease include loose or lost teeth, unpleasant smelling breath, and a runny nose or frequent sneezing. 'Peri' means surrounding, 'Dontal' means teeth, so this is a disease of the tissues surrounding the teeth. What many owners fail to realize is, that at this point, their pet is probably in pain and at serious risk of the infection spreading to other organs of the body.
  5. Other, less common problems to look out for are tumors that look like lumps on the gums. Sometimes these need to be removed by the Vet as some are malignant. Blister-like, smaller lumps that appear under the tongue or elsewhere in the mouth are salivary cysts. Removal of the saliva gland is an effective treatment for these.

Signs of Mouth Problems in Your Dog

Here are three things you can do every day to monitor for signs of oral health problems without even looking in his mouth!

  1. Sniff your dog’s breath—does it smell sweet or does he have Halitosis?
  2. Watch your pet when he eats his meal or plays with a chewy toy. Does he seem reluctant to chew? Does he cry out or wince when he chews something hard?
  3. Have you noticed an increase in saliva? Is he drooling out of one side of his mouth more than the other?

Any of the above could mean problems are developing and need further investigation.

Dog Chews and Toys for a Healthy Mouth

Regular teeth cleaning for dogs with a brush is great, but you can also provide Dentastix or similar treats in between cleanings as they can be invaluable at helping to reduce plaque build-up.

Chews and chewy toys are also a good idea for helping to keep the canine mouth healthy in between cleans—they certainly help to inhibit the build-up of tartar.

Rope toys and hide chews are probably the most effective. I give my Jack Russell, Ellie, a white hide chew in the evening after dinner. This type of hide chew gives her teeth and gums a real workout!

In the video below, Ellie is enjoying a hide bone chew that she was given as a present. It is a bit too big for her really, but she did her best to demolish it!

Dental Care for Your Dog From Your Vet

Your vet may recommend a more thorough, professional clean under sedation or anesthetic if the tartar and calculus build-up is severe or if tooth decay has been found. This is usually not done more frequently than once a year. Many dogs go several years between this sort of procedure if good care is taken of their teeth at home. Home care is especially important for older dogs, for whom anaesthesia may hold more risks than for younger animals. Similar to the experience of visiting the dental hygienist ourselves, the Vet will provide your pet with a scale and polish. In addition, if absolutely necessary, he will remove any damaged or decayed teeth.

The Dangers of Dental Disease

Plaque deposits build up on animal’s teeth in the same way as it does on humans. We clean our teeth and floss between them to prevent problems that would otherwise occur. Left untreated, plaque acid erodes the enamel on the teeth and causes the gums to recede. Without correct dog teeth care, your pet is heading for periodontal disease, the pain of tooth decay and abscesses and teeth can be lost by becoming loose due to gum erosion.

In addition, the bacteria that grow and multiply in this environment can cause problems for major organs such as the heart and kidneys. In humans, periodontal disease has been linked to increased risk of heart attacks and even to miscarriage in pregnant women—so you owe it to your pet to provide dental care.

Learning how to clean your dog's teeth properly and making teeth cleaning a part of your everyday routine, just like walking, grooming and feeding, will help to ensure that your dog has healthy teeth and gums for life.

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.

© 2016 Alison Graham


Alison Graham (author) from UK on September 29, 2016:

So sorry to hear about your cat FlourishAnyway - I'm sure he felt much better after having the teeth extracted as poisons and toxins get into the system from decayed teeth and can cause other problems too! Regarding teeth brushing, cats are very much 'their own person' aren't they? If they like or want something they will be very cooperative - if not, you may as well forget it!

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 29, 2016:

I don't have any dogs, only cats but can appreciate the value of good dental health in our furry companions. I have one cats that is only 3 years old but had 7 rotten teeth removed during routine dental cleaning at the vet. No wonder he had been so cranky. Dogs may be a little more patient with brushing than cats.