When my husband and I adopted Rolf the Greyhound 10 years ago, we loved his joyful spirit and sweet temperament, but he had a problem. The then 9-year-old came with giant bag of breath fresheners, dog dental chews and a dog toothbrush toy—and for good reason. His breath stunk to high heaven.
We discovered that poor Rolf suffered from severe periodontal disease brought on by neglected dog dental care. And, after some research, we learned that his breed type only exacerbated the problem.
“Some of the sighthounds with those sleek, narrow skulls have less bone to support the teeth,” explains veterinary dentist Bert Gaddis, DVM, DAVDC, owner of Indian Springs Dental Clinic in Pelham, Alabama. “And generally, the smaller the dog, the more likely dental disease will be a problem because they have less bone that supports the teeth, too.”
A week after he came home, Rolf visited our local veterinarian, who gave the big lug a full dental exam, along with a cleaning, polishing and, unfortunately, quite a few extractions of rotten teeth. After our sweet Grey bounded out of the recovery room, however, I could tell he was a much, much happier dog. He has since crossed the Rainbow Bridge, but while he was with us, I learned the importance of dog oral care and how it is critical to maintaining a dog’s health and wellness.
To keep your dog’s teeth sparkling and disease free, experts recommend a daily cleaning regime with a dog toothbrush and annual professional dental exams. Read on to find out more about how you can improve your dog’s dental health.
Why Dog Dental Care Is Important?
Do dogs need dental care? Absolutely, says Kimi H. Kan-Rohrer, RDHAP, BSDH, a clinical specialist-dental hygienist at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, University of California, Davis. Just like in humans, dog oral care is an important part of overall wellness, she says.
“Because pets are living longer, dog dental care has become more important to address as it can be connected to other health issues,” says Kan-Rohrere, adding that severe dental problems can possibly lead to death.
Health studies in humans, in fact, show a strong connection between oral health and conditions like diabetes and disease due to bacteria in the bloodstream, Kan-Rohrer says.
“So, it is reasonable to assume that this is a similar process in both dogs and cats,” she says.
Aside from the possible connection between oral health and other diseases, Kan-Rohrer notes that “severe dental disease can be very painful, even though dogs and cats hide pain well, and can lead to a change in eating habits and behavior.”
Proper Dog Dental Care
A healthy canine mouth, says Dr. Gaddis, should have pale pink gums that have a knife-like edge where they meet the tooth surface. An unhealthy mouth, he says, has a distinct look—and odor.
“Gingivitis, or red and inflamed gums caused by plaque and tartar buildup, is the first stage of dental disease,” he says. “Signs include odor and bleeding gums. As gums get inflamed and develop periodontal disease, they become swollen, inflamed and eventually recede because of bone loss.”
To prevent that gingivitis and periodontal disease from developing, the best dog dental care involves regular at-home scrubbing with a dog toothbrush and toothpaste, like Nylabone’s Advanced Oral Care Natural Dog Dental Kit, and professional cleanings.
At-Home Dental Care
When you clean your pal’s teeth at home, you use the mechanical action of applying a dog toothbrush’s bristles to his teeth to remove food, bacteria and plaque before it hardens, calcifies and turns into tough-to-remove tartar, Dr. Gaddis says.
“You should brush your dog’s teeth daily or every other day because plaque is easily brushed away and takes about 48-72 hours to harden and calcify,” he says. “Once it’s calcified, it needs to be scraped off by a professional.”
Dog toothpaste, like Sentry Petrodex Veterinary Strength Enzymatic Poultry Flavor Dog Toothpaste, adds to that mechanical brushing by introducing bacteria-busting enzymes and a delicious-to-dogs taste to the mix, Dr. Gaddis says.
“Pet toothpastes have enzymatic action so even just getting in the mouth can help, but brushing is the key,” he says, adding to never use toothpaste for humans on dogs. “Human toothpastes have detergents and fluoride that shouldn’t be swallowed.”
To brush your dog’s teeth, start by using your finger or a finger brush, and then, once they are used to having their mouth handled, move onto a dog toothbrush and toothpaste. Be sure to give lots of treats as a reward for good behavior. Get step-by-step instructions on how to brush your dog’s teeth.
Professional Dental Cleanings
Dog dental health also includes veterinary dental cleanings—and they are something completely different, says Kan-Rohrer. In fact, they’re not terribly unlike the dental cleanings you get from your dentist.
In the examination room, a veterinarian will perform an oral exam. Based on their findings, they’ll recommend a periodontal treatment as needed, Kan-Rohrer says. One major difference between your dog’s dental cleanings and your own is that your dog is put under general anesthesia.
“While the pet is under general anesthesia, a dental appointment includes a full set of intraoral radiographs, full mouth dental charting and a periodontal treatment that utilizes both supra- and subgingival (above and below the gumline) scaling,” Kan-Rohrer says, adding that more complicated cases, like difficult extractions and root canal treatments, are often referred to a veterinary dental specialist.
These professional cleanings should be done annually, she says.
“Depending on the breed or severity of disease, less or more than one year can be suggested,” Kan-Rohrer says. “This also depends on whether or not consistent homecare is performed.”
Dog Oral Care Products
Speaking of consistent homecare, you can find a range of products designed especially for keeping dogs’ teeth clean and their mouths fresh. Some of them even clean a dog’s teeth without brushing. Below, we dive into some of the best dog teeth cleaning products out there, and we describe the features and benefits of each one.
Dog toothbrushes, like Virbac C.E.T. Pet Toothbrush, are the gold standard for dog oral care, says Dr. Gaddis. He typically recommends a child or adult toothbrush with soft bristles. Dog toothbrushes with double heads, like the one found in Vet's Best Complete Enzymatic Dog Dental Care Kit that clean both the outer and inner tooth surfaces, work great, too. Others, like the one in the Vetoquinol Vet Solutions Enzadent Enzymatic Poultry-Flavored Toothbrush Kit, come with single heads, which are usually more easily accepted by dogs. Whichever version you choose, select one with soft bristles that will be easier on the gums.
A dog finger toothbrush, like the Nylabone Advanced Oral Care Dog Finger Brush, is exactly as it sounds: a small brush that slips over your fingertip so you can use your finger rather than a handled brush to clean your pal’s teeth. Dr. Gaddis says these dog finger toothbrushes are great for training purposes, but their short, fat bristles are not as effective as those on a regular dog toothbrush.
Dental wipes, as well as a piece of gauze or a swatch of terrycloth, are good tools for training, too, says Dr. Gaddis. You can use the soft cloth to wipe gunk off your dog’s teeth while you’re still teaching them to accept the toothbrush. Plus, they’re transportable and disposable, which can be a bonus if you’re on the road or they’re at the pet sitter’s place!
Toothpaste for dogs is specially formulated to be safe for pets. Available in delicious-to-dogs flavors like poultry (Virbac C.E.T. Enzymatic Dog & Cat Poultry Flavor Toothpaste) and vanilla mint (Virbac C.E.T. Enzymatic Dog & Cat Vanilla-Mint Flavor Toothpaste), these products can be safely swallowed—unlike human toothpaste, which contains detergents, fluoride, sodium lauryl sulfate and artificial sweeteners like xylitol that can harmful if ingested, says Kan-Rohrer.
Dental rinses and water additives, like Oxyfresh Dog & Cat Oral Hygiene Solution and TropiClean Fresh Breath Water Additive, are designed to complement traditional toothbrushing, says Dr. Gaddis. Easy to use, they typically contain enzymes and other supplemental ingredients that battle plaque and bacteria buildup to freshen breath. As with human versus pet toothpaste, human mouthwashes are not the same as dog dental rinses, so don’t offer your dog your Scope.
Dental Food and Food Additives
Dog dental food comes in special kibble shapes and sizes that help scrub plaque from dogs’ teeth. Some brands also come with highly palatable ingredients that reduce stains and buildup of bacteria. Dr. Gaddis says these foods are helpful, depending on the type and how they’re designed to work. Food additives, like ProDen PlaqueOff Powder Dog & Cat Supplement and VetriScience Perio Support Everyday Health Dog & Cat Powder Formula, are packed with enzymes and supplements and are simply sprinkled on food.
Dog dental chews, like Nylabone Nutri Dent Limited Ingredients Fresh Breath Natural Dental Dog Chews and NaturVet VitaPet Puppy Vitamins & Minerals Dog Soft Chews, are designed to do double duty: They taste delicious to dogs, and they help to mechanically scrape the tooth surface, kind of like a dog toothbrush would. Dr. Gaddis says they especially help in the back of the dog’s mouth where they do all their chewing, but they’re not a replacement for toothbrushing.
Like dog dental chews, dog toothbrush toys make your pal happily distracted while they’re improving their dental hygiene. They work by physically removing some of the tooth surface plaque, particularly in the back of the dog’s mouth where they chew, says Dr. Gaddis, but they’re not a substitute for getting in there with a dog toothbrush.
The Veterinary Oral Health Council is an excellent resource for learning about dog dental health products, says both Kan-Rohrer and Dr. Gaddis. Established in 1997, the organization publishes a list of products that have proven a minimum of 10-15 percent plaque and/or tartar removal. It includes everything from food to chews to water additives.
Manufacturers submit clinical research on their products, and the VOHC verifies the research and issues a special seal, similar to the American Dental Association’s seal, says Kan-Rohrer. If a product doesn't have the VOHC seal, however, it doesn't necessarily mean the product doesn't do what it claims, she says.
Still, many veterinarians—like Dr. Gaddis—use the VOHC website as a guide for product recommendations.
“I recommend products with the VOHC seal that is awarded to products that prove, through clinical studies, the effectiveness of their claim,” he says. “I have faith that these products are safe and effective when used properly.”
What should a dog’s teeth look like?
A: A dog’s teeth should appear clean, without any residue or tartar, says Dr. Gaddis. Their gums should look pale pink and have a knife-like edge where they meet the tooth surface.
What can I give my dog for healthy teeth?
A: You can give your dog a range of items that are designed to complement your daily toothbrushing routine, says Dr. Gaddis. Offer your pal dental toys, dental food and dental chews, like Greenies or WHIMZEES, all of which are designed to mechanically scrape off accumulated plaque. You can also add a dose of enzymes to their water dish, like those found in Nylabone Advanced Oral Care Liquid Tartar Remover. The enzymes work to freshen their breath and break down bacteria and plaque.
Can you brush a dog’s teeth with human toothpaste?
A: Absolutely not, says Kan-Rohrer. Human toothpaste is made with detergents, fluoride, sodium lauryl sulfate and artificial sweeteners like xylitol that can harmful if swallowed by a dog.