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How to brush your pet's teeth

How to brush your pet's teeth

We humans understand the importance of brushing our teeth every day to prevent tartar, bad breath, and losing teeth. For the same reasons it is important that our pets also receive dental care at home.

Dental disease (periodontal disease) in dogs and cats is a common problem affecting our dogs and cats.  It involves the accumulation of plaque on the teeth, creating the perfect environment for bacteria to accumulate under the gumline. This leads to infection and inflammation of the gums, which can be painful for the animal as well as predispose the pet to other diseases. If left without intervention, dental disease in pets can cause bad breath, the loss of teeth, bleeding of the gums and difficultly eating. 

Fortunately, in many cases, dental disease is preventable with both at-home and veterinary care.

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Brushing your pet's teeth

The gold standard for optimising your pet's dental hygiene is tooth brushing. Not all pets will tolerate strange objects in their mouth straight away, so it is important to gradually introduce the use of a toothbrush. This will take time! It is best to start this routine in young pets, however it is possible for many older pets too.

Step 1: Introducing your hands 

The first step does not involve cleaning the teeth but is instead an introduction to handling your pet’s mouth. In this step, the aim is to accustom your pet to being comfortable with you handling their lips and touching their teeth and gums.

Start by gently stroking your pets face, working your way to the lips and mouth area. Gradually introduce your fingers to gently navigate around your pet’s teeth and gums. Gently rubbing the teeth and gums in a circular motion is usually tolerated quite well in pets with healthy teeth and gums.

Repeat this process daily for one week or until your pet is comfortable. Reward with a treat or your pet’s favourite toy after each session. Always be gentle and slow around your pet's mouth and if your pet becomes distressed or resistant, stay calm and positive and give them regular breaks. If your pet is snappy or becomes aggressive, please don’t risk your fingers and chat to a vet about other options for dental care.

Step 2: Introducing the toothbrush 

Now that your pet is comfortable with you gently rubbing the teeth and gums with your finger, it is time to introduce the toothbrush.

While there are a lot of toothbrushes for pets on the market, the finger brush is possibly the easiest to use. As the name suggests, these brushes fit over your finger. And, since you have just trained your pet to love having your finger in their mouth, they make introducing the concept of the brush a lot easier!

Hard, long plastic toothbrushes can be unwieldy, and there is a risk you might accidentally poke your pet in the mouth or face while trying to brush their teeth which can easily break the trust your pet has in you.

For large, tolerant dogs however, you might find a soft bristled traditional tooth brush your preferred option. Perform the same process as in step one, with the finger brush on. There is no need for toothpaste at this stage. Using a gentle circular motion, focus the area of brushing at the base of the tooth where it meets the gumline.

Reward with a treat or your pet’s favourite toy each time. Again, repeat this process daily for one week or until your pet is comfortable.

Step 3: Introducing the toothpaste

There are several pet toothpastes available on the market, and most of them come in flavours such as cheese, chicken, or beef to help make the brushing experience more enjoyable for your pet. It is important to only use toothpaste that is designed for pets.

Human toothpaste is not designed to be swallowed and can contain fluoride, xylitol, and foaming agents that can be toxic to pets. Introduce the toothpaste at first by allowing your pet to sniff a small amount on your finger. Some pets will find it delicious and try to lick it off, so this is a good sign that you can use a small amount on the finger brush and repeat steps one and two but with the addition of toothpaste!

You’re now brushing your pet's teeth! 

It may take several weeks for you and your pet to go through these steps. Be patient, slow and gentle with your pet and encourage your pet with treats or your pet’s favourite toys after every session. Also remember that every pet is different and what works with one of your pets may not work for another.

In a perfect world, we would brush our pet's teeth twice a day, for about two minutes, just like with our own. If this is not possible, find as many times a week that you can manage, and stick to the same time every day to help get your pet into the routine of brushing.

Pet Dental Health FAQs

What else can we do for our pet's oral health? 

Although brushing our pet's teeth is the gold standard for at home dental care, there are several products available for pets to help maintain oral health, including dental powders, water additives, mouth washes, dental chews, dental diets, and dental toys.

Discuss with your veterinarian which product is right for your pet. While bones might seem like a good idea, they are a common cause of slab fractures - where a slab of the tooth is broken away, exposing the sensitive pulp of the tooth.

Broken teeth generally need to be removed by the Vet under anaesthetic. Bones can also splinter, cause oral injuries, or gastrointestinal blockages, and from a nutritional standpoint are often high in fat, which can be a trigger for pancreatitis.

A safter option for dogs is giving them a nice, crunchy carrot to munch on. You’d be surprised how many pups actually love carrots!

My pet receives all the dental care mentioned above, do they still need a dental procedure at the Vet?

Your Vet will check your pet's teeth during routine check-ups and advise you if your pet needs to have a dental procedure performed. But just like we are told to visit the dentist every 6 months, our pets often require a scale and polish regularly as well.

This is important to assess the health of the teeth and gums, and to remove any plaque or tartar that has been missed during regular brushing at home. The dental procedure at the Vet is usually performed under general anaesthetic. 

Like many diseases, prevention is better than cure, so with a regular dental routine at home, and check-ups with your Vet, your pet is on the right track for a healthy mouth. If you are concerned your pet might have dental disease, get in touch with your Vet. 


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Kylie Mitchell is a veterinarian with over 17 years experience in animal health and welfare, including in the veterinary and pet insurance industries

She has three rescue cats (Noah, Bei Bei and Meeka), four very old cockatiels and a pond-full of fish.

Kylie's pets

Noah
Noah
Bei Bei
Bei Bei
Meeka
Meeka