Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
The Risks of Periodontal Disease
Learning how to train your dog to brush his teeth is important. According to statistics by the American Veterinary Dental College, by the age of three, most dogs show some evidence of periodontal disease. What exactly is periodontal disease, and most of all, why is it so important to brush a dog's teeth?
So, What Happens?
Well, here's a basic explanation. After your dog eats a meal, just as it happens in people, a film of white/yellowish plaque starts to deposit on the surface of his teeth. At this stage, the plaque is easy to remove; indeed, you can even scrape it off with your nail. If not removed within 24 to 36 hours though, the minerals from the dog's saliva will cause the plaque to harden into a substance that is known as tartar.
Now, tartar can no longer be removed easily with your nails or with a toothbrush. It's stuck to the dog's teeth in a similar fashion as coral reef larvae adheres strongly to submerged rocks. At this point, the tartar will need to be mechanically removed by a veterinarian using specialized equipment (like a hand scaler or an ultrasonic scaler). If you fail to have this hardened tartar removed from your dog's teeth, the tartar will keep accumulating in layers and a cascading chain of events will start to take place.
As the tartar accumulates under the gum line, tissue damage will start to take place. The gums will start getting inflamed (gingivitis), and they will bleed and become swollen. Also, the bone and soft tissue surrounding the dog's teeth gets destroyed (periodontitis, literally from Greek meaning "inflammation around the tooth") which progressively leads to loose teeth and potential teeth falling.
Other complications that may occur include tooth root abscesses, development of an oronasal fistula, bone infections, weakening of the jaw bone which may lead in severe cases to fractures, not to mention, potential bacteria traveling from the diseased gums into the bloodstream and reaching vital organs such as the dog's heart, liver, and kidneys.
Now, when going in for a dental cleaning and extractions, dogs will necessitate anesthesia. We all would love it if our dogs could simply lie down on the examination table with their mouths wide open and say "AHHHH." Unfortunately, dogs will not sit still and be collaborative and having all those sharp instruments put in their mouths could turn potentially dangerous for both the operating veterinarian, the staff, and of course, the dog.
A good dental plan should preferably start when a dog is a puppy. If a puppy gets used to having his teeth touched and brushed from an early age, then dental care will be a breeze. However, it seems like this is unlikely to happen in most cases.
I have experienced this first hand. Back when I was working for an animal hospital, I used to dispatch a nice puppy kit to new puppy owners. The package included some toys, potty training booklets, dental chews, and a small toothbrush. Once called in for their appointment, many owners would take the whole kit and leave the toothbrush behind. Or some others, a few appointments later, would report that they weren't able to train their puppies to have their teeth brushed.
Many dog owners may feel that brushing their dog's teeth may be unnecessary, futile, or simply a boring routine. However, those who start a good cleaning plan and keep it up will be rewarded when their dogs come out from the vet's office with a clean bill of health.
Will Brushing My Dog's Teeth Prevent Future Dental Cleanings?
Not necessarily. A disclaimer is needed here. Just because you brush your dog's teeth doesn't mean he won't need a dental cleaning for the rest of his life. However, you may reduce the frequency of needing those teeth cleaned.
Just as it happens in humans, brushing a dog's teeth removes only the plaque from the surface of the teeth, but doesn't do much for plaque that manages to go under the gums. This is why you have to still see your dental hygienist at least twice a year even if you religiously brush your teeth and floss. You need a deep cleaning for those areas that the toothbrush doesn't reach.
There may be cases where a dog's teeth may look nice, yet what you see is just the tip of the iceberg. When the vet takes an x-ray, there may be signs of periodontal disease that can only be detected by looking under the surface.
How often should you brush your dog's teeth? This is a good question. A few years back, I remember it was said that two to three times a week would suffix. Now, things have advanced. At my latest vet appointment, my vet suggested brushing my dog's teeth every day.
This makes perfect sense. After all, plaque accumulates quite quickly and it's important to prevent it from hardening into tartar as soon as possible. If we must brush our teeth at least once a day, why shouldn't dogs have their teeth brushed too with such frequency? With my dogs, we have made it a bedtime routine, after being sent out to potty, my dogs come running inside ready for getting their teeth brushed followed by their dental treat.
The crown is just the tip of the iceberg. Approximately 42% of dental pathology is found subgingivally. Radiographs will help diagnose pathology that is not visible from the surface
— Mary L. Berg, Charter member of the Academy of Veterinary Dental Technicians
How to Train Your Dog to Brush His Teeth
Of course, this title is a bit a misnomer. Of course, your dog won't learn how to brush his teeth on his own, but with some patience and time, you can train your puppy or dog to enjoy having his teeth brushed by you. There's really no age limit to training your dog to brush his teeth. As the saying goes, "You can teach an old dog new tricks."
Of course, if your dog is reluctant to having his mouth touched, caution is needed. Some dogs may have oral pain and may bite if they feel pain when their mouth is touched. A vet should be consulted to determine the source of pain.
Other dogs may not be used to being handled, and this can make them uneasy which may also lead to biting. If your dog is aggressive at any time, stop trying to brush his teeth and consult with a trainer or behavior professional for guidance.
Now that we are aware of all the benefits associated with a good dental care program for your dog, comes the time to switch to the practical part: training your dog to brush his teeth. Dogs do best with this if you make short and rewarding sessions taking small steps at a time. It may take a week or so for you to be able to fully brush all your dog's teeth.
Here are some simple steps to get your dog accustomed to the toothbrush.
- Arm yourself with some toothpaste for dogs (these come in several tasty flavors) Place the paste on your finger and start rubbing the front teeth mimicking a toothbrush motion. Make sure you praise and reward with tasty dental treats every time your finger makes contact with the tooth. Do this for several days or until your dog seems to look forward to the procedure.
- After a few days, advance to the farthest teeth only once your dog seems comfortable. Start introducing a back-and-forth motion. Upgrade to a finger toothbrush or a small toothbrush and brush again with some flavored toothpaste designated for dogs. Because this toothpaste is also tasty (peanut butter, chicken!) your dog should readily accept it or even ask for more! Reward your dog by offering him a dental treat. Make sure you brush where the teeth meet the gums which is where a lot of plaque tends to accumulate.
- Next, try briefly reaching those hard to reach spots with a back and forth motion. Praise and reward with a breath freshener for dogs or a great dental chew! Pet stores have a good variety of dental chews that are veterinarian recommended. Look for dental treats that are VOHC Accepted. VOHC stands for the Veterinary Oral Health Council.
If your dog seems to be uncomfortable at any time, you need to take some steps back to the level he was more comfortable with. Work at your dog's pace and don't forget to always praise and reward!
Note: Some dogs may do fine simply skipping the initial stage and directly using the toothbrush. You will have to though work on creating some positive associations with it if you plan to proceed this way. Some dogs object to having a foreign item in their mouths. Start by giving treats every time your dog sees the toothbrush, then proceed to giving treats every time the toothbrush makes contact with some of the front teeth, and then finally, move to the back teeth and then add the back-and-forth motion.
On top of keeping your dog's teeth in good shape, daily brushing can also help you quickly identify any suspicious cuts, bumps and lumps in the dog's mouth that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. As seen, the advantages of training your dog to brush his teeth are many! Happy training!
Did You Know?
Allan et al. in 2019 published a paper in the Journal of Small Animal Practice where the authors compared the level of efficacy of three common methods of plaque control feeding a prescription dental diet (Hill's Prescription Diet t/d Canine), providinga dental chew (Pedigree DentaStix) or brushing a dog's teeth once daily using an enzymatic toothpaste.
According to the study, daily tooth brushing remains "the most effective single method of reducing plaque accumulation and optimising dogs' oral health."
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.
© 2008 Adrienne Farricelli
Cindy Lawson from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on September 21, 2008:
Excellent advice. My Mum's Greyhound has had so many problems with her teeth over the years that she now only has her 4 main Canines left, all the rest have had to be removed. Mum took her on as an adult dog, and she already had dental problems then. In spite of cleaning them as best she could, Mum was always fighting a losing battle as it was too little too late. Numerous dentals at the vets later, and Lady (the Greyhound), has kidney problems caused by her bad teeth in the past. Sadly she is a very old dog now, and probably hasn't got many more months to go, and she still has terrible breath and problem teeth, but the vet can't risk removing any more of them in case it causes her jaw to collapse. This means she regularly has to have antibiotic courses, as her gums get so inflamed. It is so true that prevention is better than cure, and the earlier in life you start a teeth cleaning routine for your dog the better.