How to Do a Struggle-Free Dog Teeth Cleaning

Male Hand Brushing Teeth Of His Dog

Dental hygiene is essential to a dog's overall health. However, dog teeth cleaning isn't quite as straightforward as brushing your own teeth. Before you stick your hands in your pup's mouth, it's important to understand how to make this experience as stress-free as possible for everyone involved and when to enlist professional help.

Tools You Will Need

Grab these essential items before you begin brushing your dog's teeth at home.

  • Toothpaste: Select an enzymatic toothpaste formulated specifically for dogs. Most products come in dog-friendly flavors like chicken or beef and are safe for dogs to ingest -- no spitting necessary! Never use any form of human toothpaste to clean your dog's teeth, or allow your dog to ingest toothpaste made for humans, as these products can contain toxic ingredients.
  • Toothbrush: Head to your pet store or vet hospital to find a canine toothbrush. There are usually several different kinds, including double-ended soft bristle brushes or finger toothbrushes (a rubber cap that you slip right over your finger).

Things to Keep in Mind

Even though you might be raring to go, there are a few things to consider before getting started.

  • Pre-requisites: A pre-requisite to cleaning your dog's teeth is the ability to touch their mouth. If they won't allow you to do so or if you're at risk for being bitten anytime you do, you may need to work with a canine behaviorist to address aggression first. Oral aversion might also be a sign that your dog's mouth is painful; a trip to the veterinarian can rule out any problems.
  • Optimal positioning: It's best to perform dental tasks while at the same level as your dog. Not only will this give you more control, but it will be less intimidating for them. Try sitting next to your pup on the couch. This will prevent them from backing up and can give you access to the side of their mouth for easy brushing. Small dogs can be placed on your lap with their back or side pressed against you.
  • Make it a habit: Stick to the same general time every session, as this will create a habit for your dog. It can be helpful to perform cleanings when you know your dog will be tired and more compliant, like after your morning run or evening walk, for example.
  • Be mindful of your fingers: Even if your dog doesn't intend to hurt you, they could chomp down on your fingers if they become spooked. Be mindful of where your fingers are in relation to your pup's teeth while brushing to avoid injury.
  • Reward generously: After every teeth cleaning session, praise your dog! This will help make the process a good experience.
  • Be patient: Remember to be patient when you first begin. Know that you might not even bring the toothbrush into the mix for several days or even weeks. If your dog begins to panic or struggle at any point, forgo the task and try again tomorrow. The last thing you want is for them to fear teeth cleaning. However, by working slowly, you can avoid making this a stressful experience for your pet.

1. Begin with Toothpaste

Yorkshire Terrier having her Teeth Brushed

First, introduce your dog to the toothpaste. Place a pea-sized amount on your finger and allow them to sniff it. Because most toothpastes are chicken- or beef-flavored, many food-motivated dogs might lick it right up. The idea is to familiarize your pup with the smell and taste.

If your dog doesn't want to eat it right away, try putting a small dab of all-natural, dog-safe peanut butter, cream cheese, or something else that they like right next to the toothpaste to entice them. Do this once a day for a few days. Each time, reduce the dollop of food until they're taking the toothpaste by itself.

2. Introduce the Toothbrush

After your dog becomes familiar with the toothpaste, place a bit on the toothbrush and allow them to lick it off. This will get them used to the texture of the brush bristles. If you're using a finger brush, this shouldn't be too much of a transition from your bare finger. Again, do this once a day for a few days, rewarding them enthusiastically after each session.

3. Start Brushing

Woman brushing teeth to a dog in the grooming salon

Finally, it's time to brush! As your dog is licking the toothpaste off the brush, you can attempt to gently brush a few teeth. To do this, rub your dog's neck/head with your free hand, then work your way to their face. Bring your hand over the snout to gently lift their lips on either side as you glide the bristles along the front teeth. This is a new and strange sensation, so it may take several days, weeks, or even months for your dog to become used to it.

Some dogs are very unsure about having a toothbrush in their mouth (biting down on a rigid handle can damage their teeth, so remove it if they attempt to bite the brush). It can be helpful to back up a step. Instead, try to use your finger with toothpaste on it to glide over the teeth and simulate brushing. The rubbing motion with the enzymes of the toothpaste will still help prevent buildup and fight bacteria.

4. Work Your Way Back

Once your dog is comfortable with you lifting their lip to brush the front teeth and gums, begin moving toward the back. This is where the majority of the plaque and tartar tend to build up. Work in segments and focus on the top right, then top left, bottom left, and bottom right, and don't forget to brush the gum line. Always be gentle and use circular motions.

It's not likely that you'll be able to brush their entire mouth on your first attempt, but do as much as you can before they lose patience. With each brushing, your dog will tolerate more until you can successfully get all the way around their mouth.

5. Be Thorough

If your dog tolerates brushing on all outward-facing teeth and gums, you can move to the inner-facing aspects of the teeth. For this, you'll have to gently open your dog's mouth. Many compliant dogs will allow you to do this, especially if they have been trained since puppyhood. Although you want to be thorough, avoid brushing too vigorously, as this can damage the gums or teeth. Limit cleanings to no more than a few minutes.

How Often Should I Clean My Dog's Teeth?

Ideally, you should brush your dog's teeth daily. However, any brushings are better than none, so do your best to fit them in as often as you can.

Alternatives to Dog Teeth Brushing

Have you tried brushing your dog's teeth with no success? There are still ways you can care for your dog's teeth between professional dog teeth cleanings. From dental diets, wipes, chews, or even solutions to add to their drinking water, the options are endless.

The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) lists dozens of expert-approved products designed to keep your dog's mouth fresh and healthy. This is the best place to find the solution that works best for you and your pup. And you'll know they're veterinarian-approved! If you're already at the pet store, simply look for the VOHC Seal of Approval on products.

When to Schedule a Professional Dog Teeth Cleaning

Professional dog teeth cleaning

Although brushing at home is great for preventing future buildup of plaque, it won't remove any existing disease. This is where professional dental cleanings come in. Just as you see your dental hygienist regularly, routine cleanings at the veterinary office are essential for dogs.

However, this procedure isn't just a cleaning; it's also an opportunity for your veterinarian to do a full examination of your dog's mouth by checking for any infections, damaged teeth, or abnormal growths, such as oral cancers. Catching these concerns early will not only make your dog more comfortable but also extend their life.

So, how often should these cleanings occur? The answer depends on your individual dog. Based on their genetics (some breeds, like Dachshunds or Shih Tzus, may be predisposed to dental disease), health condition, lifestyle (for example, do they chew on bones or tennis balls?), diet, and age, a dog may need a routine dental as frequently as every 6 months. Your veterinarian can give you specific recommendations at your next visit.

However, if you notice any of the following signs, it's time to schedule a professional dental procedure with your veterinary team.

  • Grey, brown, or yellow teeth
  • Bad breath
  • Bleeding gums
  • Difficulty eating
  • Dropping food while eating
  • Excessive drooling
  • Loose, broken, or missing teeth
  • Swelling within or around the mouth
  • Swelling on the snout or under the eye

Make Dental Care Stress-Free

Caring for your dog's teeth doesn't have to be a struggle. By taking small steps each day, you can develop a successful toothbrushing routine. The result will be a longer, healthier, and dog-breath-free life for your beloved pet.

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