How to Clean Your Dog’s Teeth

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Cleaning your dog’s teeth might be annoying, but it’s non-negotiable when it comes to overall canine health and longevity. Worrying about how to clean your dog’s teeth is normal, especially if you own a large breed with giant fangs. We looked into it and chatted with Dr. Lindsay Butzer, DVM and Zesty Paws spokesperson, to identify every single step you need to take to make cleaning your dog’s teeth as painless as possible. You’ll want specific supplies, lots of patience and teeth-friendly treats. One big piece of wisdom: The earlier you start cleaning your dog’s teeth, the better.

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how to clean your dog s teeth cat
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What happens if you don't brush your dog's teeth?

VCA Animal Hospitals reports more than 80 percent of adult dogs suffer from dental disease. Periodontal disease and fractured teeth are the two most common dental issues dogs face. Though fractured teeth are often caused by your dog chewing on something he shouldn’t, periodontal disease is preventable.

If you don’t clean your dog’s mouth, bacteria will throw constant parties on the surfaces of your dog’s teeth (especially those back molars). All of this bacteria covers the teeth in biofilm, a layer of plaque that clings to each tooth. Biofilm is incredibly hard to remove—even with antibiotics. Plaque loves biofilm because it accumulates and mineralizes into tartar (a process that takes as little as 24 hours, according to Domino Veterinary Hospital). Tartar hardens and sticks to teeth. If this tartar edges its way toward the gums and causes inflammation, your dog has developed gingivitis. At this point, according to VCA the damage is still reversible, but not for long.

Inflammation can swiftly turn into infection. If gingivitis isn’t tackled quickly with a deep cleaning, chances are the tooth socket and surrounding gums will become infected. This is periodontal disease. The infection can spread, causing teeth to fall out and gums to bleed. It doesn’t feel good and sometimes dogs need to have teeth removed (a process that involves anesthesia).

Even more terrifying? Mouth infections can travel directly to the heart through the bloodstream. Canines have been known to suffer from kidney disease stemming from periodontal infections.

It’s imperative you clean your dog’s teeth regularly to avoid pricey extractions or painful procedures later in your dog’s life. Canines lose their baby teeth around six months old. Just like humans, the adult teeth that come in are theirs for life. Ideally, you brush your pup’s chompers every day. Realistically, vets ask their patients to brush at least three times per week.

Start when a puppy still has its baby teeth to help the habit stick! However, even if your dog is older, the risk-reward analysis comes out in favor of brushing. Adult and senior dogs can still benefit from regular teeth cleanings.

What is the black stuff on my dog's teeth?

If you notice black or brown spots on your dog’s teeth, you’re probably looking at plaque and tartar build up. Plaque and tartar like to live along the gumline and in tiny crevasses. Again, this stuff builds up quickly!

Unfortunately, very dark spots could indicate advanced periodontal disease known as exposed furcation. The MSPCA-Angell organization says the furcation is the area in a dog’s mouth “between the roots of teeth with more than one root.” A dog’s receding gums can expose the furcation (thus exposing the roots of the teeth), causing a small black spot that looks like a cavity.

Some dogs have natural dark patches on their gums or lips. This is completely different from periodontal disease. Shar-peis and Chow Chows are known to have darker pigmentation on their gums and tongues.

Dogs whose gums turn black later in life or suddenly should be taken to a vet for an examination. While it could be a sign of aging, it could also indicate a more severe respiratory illness.

3 Vet-Recommended Tools for Brushing Your Pup’s Teeth

how to clean your dog s teeth bodhi dog doggie toothbrushes

1. Bodhi Dog Doggie Toothbrushes

Dr. Butzer recommends these doggie toothbrushes because they come with a finger tool option and a longer, angled dual-end brush.

how to clean your dog s teeth petsmile professional pet toothpaste

2. Petsmile Professional Pet Toothpaste

Not only does Dr. Butzer recommend this paste, the Veterinary Oral Health Council has given it their seal of approval. Plus, it’s ideal for fussy dogs or those who aren’t used to having their teeth cleaned because it doesn’t require tons of brushing to get the job done (though it’s still highly encouraged to brush on each side of your dog’s mouth). Note: Never use human toothpaste or a baking soda-based product in your dog’s mouth! The people stuff can be toxic to dogs and baking soda has been known to cause upset tummies.

how to clean your dog s teeth latex gloves

3. Latex Gloves

Since dog mouths are full of bacteria (hello, that’s why we’re brushing), wearing gloves is a smart move.

How can I clean my dog's teeth at home, without going to the vet?

Cleaning your dog’s teeth at home is the only way to help prevent periodontal disease. A deep cleaning at the vet will help, but plaque never quits.

Step 1: Pick a familiar spot at a quiet time of day. Play it cool. Do not get your pup riled up or excited about this activity (simply because it will be harder to get them to stand still).

Step 2: If you have a small breed, scoop them up to sit on your lap. If you have a medium-sized to large breed, sit on a chair or stool so when your pup sits next to you, his head is at waist height.

Step 3: Gently stroke and pet their head to establish a connection. Slowly lower your hand to the sides of their face (still petting) and then the sides of their lips (still petting). Keep a rhythmic, gentle motion. At this stage, if your pet is too anxious or gets aggressive, take a break and try again at a calmer time.

Step 4: Continuing a gentle stroke with one hand, slowly lift one of your dog’s top lips with the other. “While it doesn’t hurt your dog to lift his lips and brush his gums, he may seem more resistant to this part of the process as you’re dealing with more sensitive parts of the mouth,” says Dr. Butzer. “With some practice and routine though, your dog should relax more as the activity becomes more familiar.”

Step 5: If you’re just starting out, try simply rubbing your finger or a soft cloth along the sides of your dog’s teeth, near the gums. Focus on the large teeth next to the cheek and the canine teeth.

Step 6: Once your dog is familiar with you rubbing the sides of his teeth, introduce the toothpaste. Let your dog taste it and smell it.

Step 7: Apply toothpaste to a soft cloth and rub it along your dog’s teeth. Be super gentle yet quick if this is new to your dog.

Step 8: Is your dog used to that soft cloth? Great! Now it’s time to apply toothpaste to the toothbrush and start the actual brushing. Dr. Butzer advises using a circular brushing motion to ensure every part of the tooth is brushed.

Step 9: Check for blood around the gums. Dogs who’ve never had a brushing before might have more sensitive gums. Adjust your pressure if you notice any irritation. “While there might be some bleeding as you cover the edges of the gums while brushing, it’s ok as long as the bleeding isn’t heavy or prolonged,” says Dr. Butzer.

Step 10: Once your dog is comfortable with having the larger teeth cleaned, get after his tinier teeth by lightly tilting his head back and hold the upper jaw open (gently!) with one hand while you brush with the other.

Step 11: Over time (which could mean a few days or a few weeks, depending on how your pup responds), work your way up to brushing for 30 seconds on each side of your dog’s mouth, cleaning all teeth on both sides.

“Don’t forget the inside of your dog’s teeth!” Dr. Butzer warns. “Just because your dog has a pearly white smile doesn’t mean that their teeth are clean all the way around. To prevent disease and plaque build-up where you can’t see, make sure you brush the interior of your dog’s teeth as diligently as you brush the outside. It’s also important to reach back into the molar region when brushing as this area is the most susceptible to developing issues.”

Finally, between each of the steps outlined here, add in consistent praise for a job well-done. Your dog has no clue what’s going on—and will usually be uncomfortable. Reassure him that he’s doing great and this is not a punishment.

how to clean your dog s teeth foods
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What food is good for cleaning dogs’ teeth?

Do not be fooled by any food, treat or tool that vows to clean your dog’s teeth completely without any additional work. It’s simply not true. Actively brushing your pup’s teeth and taking him in for deep cleaning when necessary is the only way to remedy plaque and tartar build-up. You can’t avoid it completely, but you can mitigate it.

That being said, there are some snacks, foods and supplements that help scrape plaque away and improve breath.

  • Celery is a vegetable that is safe for dogs to eat and has been known to improve breath! Crunchy vegetables are healthy snacks that work double time to remove plaque, too.
  • Hill’s Prescription T/D is a dry food for dogs designed specifically to keep dogs’ teeth healthy. In fact, it is “clinically proven nutrition to reduce plaque, stain and tartar buildup.”
  • Zesty Paws Hemp Elements Omega OraStix are delicious snacks made with ridges and grooves to displace plaque and tartar.
  • HealthyMouth is an all-natural additive you can toss into your dog’s water bowl. By drinking it, your dog is quietly reducing the plaque and tartar living on his teeth.

Check out the Veterinary Oral Health Council website to discover more treats and tools that have been vetted and given a seal of approval from experts.

Dr. Butzer also begs folks to avoid feeding dogs sugary foods. “The health of your dog’s teeth depends as much on what your dog eats, if not more, than what you do to clean your dog’s teeth,’ she says. “Make sure to give them high quality protein-based food and treats that are low on carbohydrates and high on dentally beneficial ingredients such as kelp and peppermint oil, both of which are included in ZestyPaws OraStix.”

What are the signs of bad teeth in dogs?

As a pup parent, you should be able to identify the signs of bad teeth in your dog without a trip to the vet. The signs are similar to those in humans. If you notice any of the following, make sure you’re doing all you can to clean your dog’s teeth (and make an appointment to see your vet if things look dire).

1. Changes in eating habits

Dogs who start eating exclusively on one side of their mouths might have an issue with a tooth on the other side. Similarly, dogs who keep dropping food out of their mouths or have trouble chewing might have dental disease. If they stop eating altogether, definitely take them into the vet.

2. Changes in behavior

A refusal to chew on a favorite Kong or run to fetch a ball might be an indication your dog’s teeth hurt. If you try to pet your dog’s face or head and he shies away (and this is unusual behavior), it could mean something in his mouth is causing him pain.

3. Changes in breath

Dogs aren’t known for their minty fresh breath, but if your pup’s breath takes a sudden, sour turn, check his teeth.

4. Discolored teeth

Again, plaque and tartar build-up can cause yellow, brown or black spots on your dog’s teeth. Check along the gums for odd colors.

5. Swollen, red gums

Gingivitis is literally the swelling of the gum tissue. Bright red or bleeding gums are likely a sign of dental disease. Sometimes, if the gums have recessed, there could be puss. Not fun! Brush those teeth!

6. Frequent sneezing or drooling

What looks like a head cold could actually be dental disease! Nasal discharge, excessive drooling or sneeze attacks may in fact be linked to periodontal issues.

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Sarah Ashley

Freelance Writer

Sarah Ashley is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She has covered pets for PureWow for six years and tackles everything from dog training tips to the best litter boxes. Her...
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