Oral Health for Dogs

black dog with their mouth open

There are Plenty of Things You Can Do to Protect Your Dog's Oral Health

Skip brushing and your dog probably won’t ever develop a cavity. Instead, you’ll get to battle bad breath, excessive tartar and gum disease. Unlucky dogs might lose their teeth or develop periodontal disease that affects the heart, kidney or liver. Either way, you can expect that dental problems will require a veterinary dental cleaning to fix.

We understand that sometimes, despite your best efforts, your dog might not allow you to brush their teeth. But it’s more likely that your dog would accept brushing if you carefully introduced them to the right toothbrush. And even if your dog won’t let you touch their teeth, there are plenty of things you can do to protect their pearly whites–no toothbrush required.

Why Preventing Periodontal Disease Is Important

While many people appreciate a mouthful of ivory chompers, it’s doubtful that your dog cares. So why is canine dental care so important?

Non-existent or poor dental care can easily lead to your dog losing teeth, but most dogs can cope without them. The real problems occur when the bacteria in your dog’s mouth, which create plaque, is allowed to run rampant. The bacteria create inflammation of the gums that can quickly turn into a systemic problem in your dog. If left to fester, some dogs develop life-threatening illnesses or infections caused by periodontal disease. Periodontal disease can also lead to bone loss in the jaw, which can have devastating effects for toy and small breed dogs. It can also cause painful abscesses, and gum disease.

You may not realize that the underlying cause of plaque, and the resulting tartar and periodontal disease, is bacteria. When those bacteria create a film on the tooth–called plaque–it’s easily removed. But as time goes on, that plaque absorbs minerals in saliva and hardens into tartar. Meanwhile, the bacteria continue to create problems in your dog’s mouth that leads to inflammation.

This inflammation can cause problems throughout the body, which is why periodontal disease has been linked to some other surprising problems. Evidence shows that it’s linked to an increased risk of heart and lung disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, kidney disease, leukemia and certain cancers.

For these reasons, it’s important to start a dental regimen before you’re able to spot any problems. Once you can see evidence of a dental problem, it usually requires the help of a veterinarian to resolve. Preventative treatment is particularly important if your dog might have a predisposition to dental problems.

Sometimes, dental problems are caused by your dog’s unique DNA, which helps determine the bacteria in their mouth. If your dog has crooked teeth, or teeth that fit outside of their mouth, he’ll also need more dental help. But some dog breeds are also more likely to have dental problems. Toy breeds, small breeds, and short-nosed, brachycephalic breeds are all more likely to have dental problems.

playful, small white dog with mouth open

Become a Dental Triple Threat: It makes sense to use several treatments at once to protect your dog’s teeth

The battle against periodontal disease isn’t just about brushing. There are three types of treatments used to battle plaque, tartar and its associated maladies.

Systemic: These treatments, which include food and water supplements, enter the bloodstream to attack bacteria that causes plaque everywhere in the body.

Enzymatic: Many toothpastes and chews contain enzymes that help break down food debris in the mouth. Without the food that the bacteria needs to multiply, the bacteria colonies are kept in check.

Mechanical: If something is touching the tooth to remove plaque, it falls under the mechanical category. Toothbrushes, chews and tartar scrapers are all tools to provide mechanical dental care.

It makes sense to use several of these treatments at once to protect your dog’s teeth. For high-risk dogs or dogs who already have dental disease, consider a treatment option from all three categories. That could be as easy as adding a systemic treatment to your dog’s diet, using enzymatic toothpastes and chews, and committing to a daily brushing to attack periodontal problems effectively. All dogs could benefit from dental care from at least two categories.

Some dental products provide a combination of different types of protections. Plenty of dental chews that provide mechanical cleaning might contain enzymes, and many types of dental products contain both systemic and enzymatic ingredients.

golden retriever dog eating from bowl

Using Systemic Products to Prevent Tartar

Systemic products work by keeping the bacteria that creates plaque in check. Typically, you can add a product to either your dog’s food or water that diminishes certain bacteria strains. If your dog tolerates it, we recommend you try a systemic product in their food. If they don’t allow any supplement or addition to their food, you can try an addition to their water, but you should monitor them closely. Some dogs may drink less water if they taste a dental product. Drinking less water, which can lead to chronic dehydration, isn’t worth the teeth-cleaning benefits of a dental additive. It might take some experimentation to get this right, but systemic products are a painless way to decrease plaque.

How to Teach Your Dog to Tolerate Their Toothbrush

Expect to take a few weeks to help your dog get acquainted with the idea of brushing. To start, try touching their lips and the outside of their face with your index finger. Rub those areas in small circles, and slowly work your way to placing your finger into their mouth and lightly massaging their gums and teeth.

Remember to be patient, and plan on massaging only a small area every day until your dog is ready for more. Coach them through this new experience with plenty of verbal praise. Rewarding them with a tasty treat may also help.

When you’ve progressed so your dog will accept a finger in their mouth, try placing a very small amount of canine toothpaste on your index finger. Let your dog sniff and taste the toothpaste. Once he’s okay with the toothpaste, try your finger with the toothpaste in their mouth.

Once your dog is comfortable with your finger in their mouth, it’s time to pick your tool of choice. The simplest option is to wrap gauze over your finger to create a disposable toothbrush to scrub your dog’s teeth. This technique is also a good intermediary step if your dog tolerates your finger in their mouth but doesn’t like a brush there.

But if you want something more durable, you definitely have options.


Finger Brush: Several manufacturers sell a finger brush that fits over your index finger to create a toothbrush. This brush allows you to feel the exact amount of pressure you’re placing on your dog’s mouth. You’ll also be able to feel if you accidentally hit your dog’s cheek while brushing, which may make it easier to brush. Finger brushes also make it simpler to regulate the motion you use when brushing.

Dog Toothbrush: Whether they’re double-headed, angled or could be mistaken for a human toothbrush, there are several differently-designed brushes to try to make it easier to brush your dog’s teeth. Remember, the goal is to remove all plaque from all surface areas of your dog’s teeth, so it’s up to you to pick the one that works best.

Human Toothbrush: A soft-bristled human toothbrush, appropriately sized for your dog’s mouth, is also a great option for brushing your dog’s teeth. Just be sure to use canine-only toothpaste, and you’re ready to go.

It’s important to remember that your dog might need some coaching to accept regular toothbrushing. To put it in perspective, think about a trusted family member brushing your teeth. Even when brushing is done with care, it’s bound to be slightly awkward because the person operating the brush cannot feel how the brush feels in your mouth. So, plan on lots of practice, so both you and your dog get comfortable with the feelings and skills necessary to brush their teeth.

panting brown and white pitbull dog

Does Your Dog Need Extra Oral Health Vigilance?

Genetics will play a role in your dog’s overall oral health. While some dogs maintain healthy, clean teeth with minimal effort, the dogs on this list will require extra help to encourage a healthy mouth.

Brachycephalic Dogs: Dogs with short muzzles tend to be mouth breathers that produce less saliva to protect their mouth from bacteria and tartar build-up.

Toy or Small Breed Dogs: Any periodontal disease can lead to bone loss, and 80% of dogs have periodontal disease that affects the bone by age six. For small dogs, this bone loss can lead to fragile jaws that are prone to breakage.

Dogs with Restorative Dental Work: If your dog has any special dental work, they probably shouldn’t be chewing any bones. That means your dog may need regular toothbrushing or other help to prevent tartar build-up.

Dogs with Crowded Teeth: Crowded teeth can harbor tartar and inflammation while being more difficult to clean with bones or brushing.

What if I Can’t Brush My Dog’s Teeth?

You’ve made a good faith effort, but your dog isn’t interested in anything brush-shaped ever touching their ivories. This happens, but you still have plenty of dental health options available to keep their teeth in good shape. First, make sure that you’re providing the chews that will make them and their teeth happy. Second, make sure the foods they eat are contributing to good dental health. Third, consider supplements that will promote a healthy mouth environment that will shun tarter. Fourth, try dental food or water additives, gels or sprays that will attack mouth bacteria. And finally, make sure that your veterinarian is inspecting their teeth every year to look for signs of excess tartar and periodontal disease.

blue coiled nylon leash and collar

When to See a Veterinarian

A proactive dental health regime will keep your dog’s teeth in good condition, but you should see a veterinarian if they already have visible tartar. A vet is the only person qualified to assess the condition of your dog’s mouth and recommend a surgical tooth cleaning.

If at any time, your dog has cracked or broken teeth, swelling around the mouth or any signs of mouth pain, that merits a visit to your vet. Usually, if you can spot a problem in your dog’s mouth, you’ll need help from your veterinarian to correct it. Over-the-counter dental products can prevent dental problems—they can’t reverse existing conditions.