Brushing your teeth daily is one of the most important things you can do for your pup’s health, yet few dog owners make it part of their routine. No one wants another daily chore, but brushing is essential to ensure your furry best friend’s mouth (and body) stays healthy and pain-free for as long as possible.
“It’s very important, maybe even more important than what I do,” says veterinarian Thoulton W. Surgeon. “What I do, when it comes to removing tartar and plaque, is about a third as important as brushing my teeth every day.”
75% of dogs over three years old suffer from some degree of periodontal disease. If left untreated, the infection in the gums can spread to the jawbone and the ligaments that hold the teeth in place. Over time, this results in significant pain, tooth loss, and even damage to the heart, liver, and kidneys.
It all starts when plaque forms on the dog’s teeth. This plaque leads to tartar and ultimately inflammation and sensitivity of the gums, known as gingivitis. Without intervention, gingivitis can quickly progress to periodontal disease.
As the above statistic shows, this process does not take long. By the age of three, two-thirds of dogs already show signs of periodontal disease, and from then on the disease will only get worse without proper dental care.
Many dog parents only start brushing their pup’s teeth when they notice bad breath or tartar buildup. The problem with waiting for problems before dental care becomes a priority is threefold:
1. If there is significant damage, brushing alone cannot restore dental health.
Most people brush their teeth twice a day and yet we still need periodic dental cleanings. Although dogs don’t eat the same variety of cavity-causing foods as we do, they still accumulate quite a bit of buildup without routine care. Starting brushing after plaque has covered the teeth and the gums have become inflamed is simply not enough to repair the damage.
If you notice that your dog has dental disease, do not attempt to start a brushing routine. First, visit your veterinarian for a dental exam and a thorough professional cleaning to restore your dog’s mouth to health. After a short recovery period, you can start brushing to extend the time between cleanings.
2. The longer bacteria remain in a dog’s mouth, the greater the risk of them entering the bloodstream and causing systemic problems.
The tartar that accumulates on a dog’s teeth consists of 80% bacteria. If this bacteria enters the bloodstream, it can spread throughout the body, potentially causing damage to the heart, liver and lungs. Studies have even found a link between dental infections and heart attacks and strokes in dogs.
3. Trying to start brushing as soon as periodontal disease occurs can be painful for the dog, creating a negative association.
Dogs can be quite stoic, but make no mistake: dental disease is painful.
“That’s the main reason people should worry about dental disease in pets: It hurts them,” says Tony M. Woodward, a veterinarian in Colorado. “Pets do not show pain due to dental disease. When they are in pain, I wish dogs would claw their faces or stop eating, but they don’t.
Attempting to brush a dog’s teeth while he is in a painful state may cause him to associate the toothbrush with that pain. Brushing can actually feel pretty good when the mouth is healthy.
You also risk introducing bacteria into the body through your dog’s inflamed, irritated gums.
“Gums are very vascular,” says Colleen O’Morrow, DVM, a veterinarian in Manitoba, Canada. “You don’t want to push bacteria into the bloodstream by brushing a dirty mouth.”
Just like with children, it’s best to start a daily teeth-brushing routine with your dog while he still has the pearly whites of puppyhood. Even though these teeth fall out, your puppy will learn to tolerate brushing in the same way he learns to tolerate bathing, nail trimming and clipping.
If you have rescued an adult dog, ask your veterinarian if his teeth are healthy enough to begin brushing or if a professional dental cleaning should be performed first.
When it’s time to start a cleaning protocol, make sure you have the best supplies for the job. The bristles of toothbrushes designed for humans are often too stiff for a dog’s sensitive gums. Dog toothbrushes typically come in two forms: a handle version and a finger brush. Here are our top picks.
Even more important than your choice of brush is choosing an effective, high-quality dog toothpaste. Most human toothpastes contain fluoride and some contain xylitol, both of which are toxic to dogs. Choosing a product designed specifically for dogs is essential!
This is especially important for restless puppies who can only tolerate brushing for a short time. As long as you can place the paste in your mouth, your dog will benefit from its bulking and breath-freshening properties. If your dog is too squirmy to brush, try one of these brushless toothpastes.
We understand that daily brushing is a big commitment, and not always the easiest task to complete. Even veterinarians sometimes fall behind, but like Dr. Andy Roark from Cleveland Park Animal Hospital says:
“I will always strive to brush daily because no matter how hectic our lives are, the efforts to make our pets healthier and happier are never wasted.”