Taking the bite out of cleaning your dog’s teeth

Even the most conscientious dog owner often overlooks their pet’s teeth when it comes to grooming and hygiene. It makes some sense. Those teeth are sharp, and designed to rip at flesh, muscle and sinew. Not that most of our beloved pets would harm us intentionally; it just seems to be the intelligent move to keep our hands out of their mouths.

Humor aside, cleaning your dog’s teeth is a very important part of their health care. Too often we leave that to the vet, and only get our dog’s teeth cleaned when it is obviously needed. The thing is, if you can see the tartar buildup, and smell the germs the cleaning is probably long overdue.

As a rule, baring serious injury or disease, most of our pets only see the vet to get their yearly shots, and for a general checkup. Veterinarians themselves often fail to alert pet owners to the need for oral cleaning, both in the home and even in their offices. They simply weigh the dog, give them a cursory once-over and administer any necessary shots and it’s over.

To be fair, while the veterinarians should make a bigger issue of the situation, and remind dog owners of the need for tooth cleaning, it really falls on us as pet owners to be sure we are doing everything our dog needs to be healthy. A yearly cleaning, if that, just isn’t enough. You don’t only brush your own teeth once a year—do you? Of course not.

How often should I brush my dog’s teeth?

Like people, dogs would benefit from having their teeth brushed after any meals. That isn’t quite realistic, however. Manual brushing requires a little prep time and work.

You can increase the benefits by using non-invasive tooth brushing methods for your dog between times you actually brush their teeth. Special bones and chew snacks are designed to help clean teeth.

If your dog is a real hard-case about having his or her teeth brushed, you can even get away with using these types of cleaning aides along with regular veterinarian cleanings. It will be much cheaper in the long run, however, if you can physically brush their teeth at least once a week. More is always better, but if you use tooth cleaning aides in between, once a week brushing and a yearly vet check for oral health is fine for most dogs.

But some breeds are particularly predisposed to tooth problems. Brachycephalic breeds (those with pushed in noses such as bulldogs, Pekingese and Shit Tzu) have a much higher rate of tooth and gum disease due to the shortened muzzle and less room for proper tooth development.

Very small toy dogs such as papillons and toy poodles also have problems with tooth decay and gum disease. These breeds should all have more intense cleaning regimens. Physical cleaning several times a week in addition to bones and other cleaning aides are needed for these types of dogs.

What you’ll need to physically clean your dog’s teeth

A soft toothbrush or finger brush: finger brushes are rubber prophylactics that fit over the index finger and have nubby protrusions or bristles that massage the gums and help clean the teeth. Finger brushes offer the most precision, however they require you actually put your finger in your dog’s mouth. A soft toothbrush will work as well and at least keep your hands out of your pet’s mouth if they tend to try and bite down.

Dog toothpaste: This is the most important thing to get before you get started. Human toothpaste is not designed to be eaten, and can cause stomach upset at the least when too much is swallowed. Since dogs can’t spit, they are going to swallow what you put in their mouth. Dog toothpaste also comes in much more palatable flavors that your dog will learn to enjoy and look forward to.

Training your dog to open wide

Hold your dog so that he’s facing forward and you can hold him in place with one arm while brushing with the other. Use your free hand to lift his lip on one side of his mouth and insert the toothbrush or your covered finger between his lips and teeth. Brush just like you would your own teeth, from top to bottom on uppers and bottom to top on lower teeth.

Pay special attention to the molars alongside his mouth and the rear teeth the most. These are the teeth first affected by plaque buildup and need the most attention.

As you move to the front, use your free hand to lift his upper lip and brush the canines and front teeth. Move to the opposite side and repeat the methods used on the first side by lifting the lip and inserting finger or brush between the lip and teeth.

It may be a struggle the first few times, but if you are careful and if he learns that brushing doesn’t hurt him, your dog will soon look forward to having his teeth brushed. Regular brushing will keep him healthier, his breath will smell better and you’ll spend a lot less on veterinary care and possible oral surgery later.

Tami Parrington is a longtime dog owner who has shown several breeds in both obedience and agility. She and her husband now share their home with an energetic papillon, Batty, who keeps Tami company while she works as a freelance writer who shares her love of pets and their care with readers. Batty has chomped a few fingers while learning to enjoy brushing, but she now looks forward to her cleanings and her teeth are sparkly white.

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