By: | | Dogs, Cats

Your pet’s bad breath and discolored teeth aren’t just unpleasant and unattractive. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, by the time your dog or cat is three years old, they will very likely have some early evidence of periodontal (gum) disease, which will worsen as your pet grows older if you don’t take effective preventive measures. Untreated dental disease can be a serious problem and can even spread to the heart, kidneys and other organs.

The good news is that with regular tooth brushing at home, annual dental check-ups with your vet, and occasional professional dental cleanings, you can prevent these problems and treat much of the damage that may already be there.

Any effort you can make toward keeping your pet’s teeth clean and healthy is well worth it for both your pet and your pocket book. In their 2013 analysis, VPI Pet Insurance found that the average cost to treat dental disease in pets is $531.71 while the average cost to prevent it is only $171.82.

Caring for Your Pet’s Teeth at Home

The most important thing you can do for your pet’s dental care at home is brushing their teeth. I know what you’re probably thinking, “Brushing my pet’s teeth daily would be great for keeping them healthy, but my pet would just never put up with that.” And you’re right if you’re just going to pry your pet’s mouth open and start scrubbing away, your pet’s going to hate it (and you probably will, too).

But daily teeth brushing doesn’t have to be a traumatic experience for your pet if you approach it correctly and train them to be comfortable with the process instead of forcing it on them. This means gently teaching them first to accept having your hands around the area of their mouth, and then slowly progressing to using a toothbrush to actually brush their teeth. I’ve used these methods with my own cat, and they can work for your pet, too! But first, let’s talk about the tools you’ll need.

Choosing a Toothbrush for Your Pet

There are many different types of toothbrushes for pets designed to make the job easier:

  • Brushes with angled handles – These can provide a more comfortable grip than a straight handle and help you reach the sides and backs of your pet’s teeth more easily.
  • Extra-small brushes – The smaller size makes these easier to fit in the mouths of cats and small dogs.
  • Triple-sided brushes – These feature three brush heads angled toward each other so that you can brush the top and both sides of your pet’s teeth at once.
  • Finger brushes – These fit over your index finger and can be less intimidating than a regular brush for some pets who aren’t used to having their teeth brushed. These aren’t as effective at cleaning as bristled brushes, so they’re best used only while initially training your pet to have their teeth brushed and then transitioning your pet to a bristled brush.

It’s also fine to use a human toothbrush on your pet’s teeth, or you can even just use a piece of gauze wrapped around your fingers. Make sure whatever toothbrush (pet or human) you use has soft bristles, not medium or hard. My recommendation is to try a few different brush types; you may find that your pet tolerates one better over the others, or that one is easier or more comfortable for you to use.

What Toothpaste to Use

The most important part of brushing your pet’s teeth is the brushing action itself, not the toothpaste you’re using, and it’s actually perfectly fine to brush your pet’s teeth with just water. The most important thing is to NEVER use human toothpaste on your pet, as these often contain ingredients that are toxic to pets, fluoride and xylitol.

Toothpastes designed for pets typically come in pet-friendly flavors like poultry or beef, and you may even find that your pet enjoys the taste of the toothpaste, making them more receptive to having their teeth brushed. Pet toothpastes also often contain enzymes that help break down plaque, giving your brushing an additional boost to your pet’s oral health.

Training Your Pet to Let You Brush Their Teeth

Okay, you’ve got your pet toothbrush and possibly your pet toothpaste, it’s time to brush your pet’s teeth! The key to getting your pet to accept having their teeth brushed is to approach the process slowly. DON’T RUSH THIS! In the beginning, you’re not going to be doing anything that cleans their teeth at all, but THAT’S OKAY because over the long-term you’ll build up to being able to do a thorough cleaning without a struggle from your pet. And that’s a daily habit you’re much more likely to keep up with than pinning your pet down and forcing a brush in their mouth (not to mention being safer for both you and your pet).

The video below shows the step-by-step process of training your pet to have their teeth brushed. The trainer is working with dogs in this video, but this process can work equally well for cats. I recommend watching the video in its entirety once and then reviewing the section for the current step you’re working on before each training session with your pet. Commit to doing a short training session, just a few minutes long, with your pet at least once a day. With a little patience and consistency, daily teeth brushing can be a stress-free experience for both you and your pet.

How to Brush for Maximum Effectiveness

Once you’ve trained your pet to be completely comfortable having their teeth brushed, you can work on improving your technique to get the most out of your brushing. The Veterinary Oral Health Council recommends the following steps:

  • Since dental plaque and tartar accumulate most rapidly on the outside surfaces of the upper teeth of dogs and cats, these areas should be targeted for particular attention during regular brushing.
  • Apply the brush to your pet’s teeth at a 45° angle, with the bristle pointed toward their gums.
  • Brush your pet’s teeth in sections, making three back and forth strokes followed by a fourth vertical stroke from the gums to the tips of the teeth, until each tooth has been brushed.

Keep in mind, plaque hardens into tartar when undisturbed for about 24 to 48 hours, so shoot for brushing your pet’s teeth daily (preferably twice daily just like you brush your own teeth). However, any brushing activity, used regularly, is better than no brushing activity so even if you can only manage brushing your pet’s teeth a few times a week, you’re still contributing greatly to their oral health.

What About Dental Chews and Water Additives?

While these may provide some dental benefits, they don’t come anywhere close to the effectiveness of brushing. You may want to use them while you’re working up to being able to thoroughly brush your pet’s teeth or as a supplement to your daily brushing, but don’t use them as a brushing replacement.

With dental chews, keep in mind that to work effectively, your pet has to gnaw on the dental chew slowly, so the abrasive ingredients in the chew can scrub plaque from their teeth. Many pets will just gulp these treats down, which doesn’t provide any dental benefit and just adds calories to your pet’s diet.

Some pets will refuse to drink water with dental additives in it or drink less, despite many manufacturer’s claims of their products being odorless and tasteless. So when using water additives, always provide your pet with a separate bowl of plain, fresh, additive-free water to ensure they stay adequately hydrated.

Dental Check-ups and Cleanings with Your Vet

In addition to brushing your pet’s teeth at home, your pet’s dental care should also include a dental exam by your veterinarian at least once a year. Regular dental exams by your pet’s veterinarian are important for detecting dental disease before it becomes serious and are just one more reason to take your pets to the vet for their annual physicals.

After examining your pet’s mouth, your vet may recommend a professional dental cleaning. This procedure usually requires your pet to be put under general anesthesia, their teeth are cleaned and polished, and any problem teeth may be extracted.

Your pet’s mouth may be a little sore and sensitive after a dental cleaning, especially if they had any extractions. Be sure to talk to your vet about when it’s safe to resume brushing your pet’s teeth at home, and go slowly and gently at first.


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