How to keep your dog’s teeth clean

Article by Dr Alex Crow

Dr Alex Crow is an RCVS licensed Veterinary Surgeon who has a special interest in neurology and soft tissue surgery. He is passionate about educating pet parents so they can better care for their pets.

Most of us will brush our own teeth at least once per day, but many dog owners will admit to not having a regular teeth-cleaning routine for their canine friends. Dental health and hygiene are just as important for dogs as they are for us.

Think about all the food, toys and other objects that your dog puts in their mouth on a daily basis; from tough abrasive stones to bacteria ridden puddle water, it stands to reason that dogs would be particularly susceptible to dental disease. Therefore, keeping your dog’s teeth strong, clean and healthy is of utmost importance. 

Most dogs suffer from bad teeth

Dog with dirty teeth

It is estimated that over two thirds of dogs over the age of 3 suffer from some form of dental disease. Poor canine dental hygiene not only leads to halitosis (bad breath) but can also lead to periodontal disease, which occurs when harmful bacteria accumulate on your dog’s teeth and gums, resulting in infection, decay and plaque build-up.

This plaque can then harden overtime into tartar or calculus, a mineralised deposit which adheres to the teeth and gums. In very extreme cases this infection can even result in life-threatening conditions because of bacteria spreading into your dog’s bloodstream resulting in liver, kidney and even heart muscle damage.

The emphasis on doggy dental care is on preventing the disease from developing in the first place. This is achieved by implementing a regular, daily oral hygiene routine; it’s always best to ingrain these habits into your dog when they are as young as possible, that way it becomes part of normal life. Be persistent, your dog might not understand what is happening at first but the more you practice dental care, the more accustomed to it your dog will become. Make the occasion fun for your dog and reward them with a tooth-friendly treat afterwards to let them know when they’ve behaved! 

Here are 5 top tips for keeping your dog’s teeth clean.

Brush your dog’s teeth

Cleaning dog's teeth with finger brush

Regular brushing is by far the most effective way to prevent dental disease from developing in your dog and, just like with people, it’s best to brush daily. Always use a toothpaste that’s specifically designed for pets, as human toothpaste can often lead to stomach upset, excessive foaming and may even contain substances toxic to dogs such as the artificial sweetener xylitol.

Most dogs will prefer a meat-flavoured toothpaste over a strong minty one that we might use ourselves. The best option is to use an enzymatic toothpaste, as these are specially formulated for providing a natural antibacterial action by actively breaking down bacteria and plaque that may have accumulated. 

When it comes to choosing which brush to use human toothbrushes are fine, as long as the bristles aren’t too firm; firm bristles can cause gum bleeding and damage. However, a better option may be a ‘finger brush’ – these are small rubber brushes that fit over your finger, giving you better control and allowing you to get to all the nooks within your dog’s mouth.

Give your dog dental chews

Dental chews are not only a fantastic distraction to keep your dog out of trouble but can be a great way to prevent plaque from building up on your dog’s teeth. The mechanical action of chewing on a hard treat will help break off any nasty tartar that might have accumulated, providing a natural cleaning action.

There are some chews that should be avoided, however, as they may cause more harm than good. Avoid hard bones and pigs’ ears as these are often too tough to be chewed and can result in chipped and/or broken teeth. Also be aware of the calorie content of the chews; some can be very high in calories resulting in unwanted weight gain and obesity. 

The best options to give your dog are rawhide chews or specifically formulated dental chews, as these will keep your dog occupied for hours, are just the right toughness and aren’t overloaded with calories.

Rubber or plastic chew toys can also be a great way to promote healthy teeth by preventing the build-up of plaque and as a bonus will keep your dog mentally stimulated and entertained. 

If you want to keep it really simple, allowing your dog to chew on a carrot or a small broccoli stem can have much the same effect as above, while providing them with many of the vitamins and minerals that they need to stay healthy.  

Always make sure that the size of the chew is appropriate for your dog’s mouth, to avoid any potential choking hazard.

Dental mouthwash

Doggy mouthwash is a great addition to your dog’s oral hygiene routine, but it isn’t a substitute for brushing.

However, simply by adding a small amount of specialised mouthwash to your dog’s water bowl each time you replace the water, it can help eliminate bad breath, prevent plaque build-up, and promote white teeth and healthy gums. 

Give your dog dry food

Cocker Spaniel with bowl of dry dog food

Consider incorporating dry kibble into your dog’s diet as crunching on the harder biscuits will help to break off any tartar that may have accumulated.

Soft food is more likely to stick to your dog’s teeth which if not brushed off can be the perfect breeding ground for nasty bacteria. 

There are benefits to both wet and dry food, so a mixture usually works best.

Get your dog’s teeth professionally cleaned

Vet cleaning dog's teeth

If you’re in doubt about your dog’s oral health or are struggling to remove tartar that has already accumulated, then it may be best to book a professional clean with your vet. Veterinarians know what to look out for when it comes to dental damage and can identify the early signs of disease. This assessment is all performed under a general anaesthetic, so every corner of the mouth can be thoroughly examined. 

Vets will use special equipment that can remove plaque hiding below the gum line; your dog’s teeth will be scaled and polished to remove any signs of plaque or tartar build-up. Dental X-rays can even be taken to identify disease to the tooth roots and special ligaments that hold the teeth in place and, if necessary, veterinarians are highly trained at safely extracting any teeth that have become irreparably damaged or diseased. Thus, removing any source of oral pain that your dog may be experiencing.

Hopefully by following all of these recommendations you will have a happy and healthy dog with well-kept teeth that will last a lifetime!

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