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Dental health in dogs: Everything you need to know

Written by FOTP Team


Dog with brush in her mouth

Have you brushed your dog’s teeth recently?  Maybe not, but you aren’t alone: canine dental health is often overlooked.  Unfortunately periodontal disease can cause pain, tooth loss, and bad breath.  Let’s fix this.  You can start brushing your dog’s teeth any time – in this article we’ll discuss the basics of oral hygiene, including dental accessories for your dog.  

Does your dog need a dental care plan?

Around 80% of dogs will have periodontal disease by the time they’re 2 or 3 years old.  It’s the most common problem in adult dogs in America, according to the American Kennel Club.  

Dental problems in dogs are similar to problems in humans.   But dogs don’t talk about pain – and don’t tend to show it until it gets really unbearable.  Look out for these signs that your dog needs oral care:

  • Swollen or bleeding gums
  • Chewing food on one side of the mouth
  • Pressing their face on the floor or furniture
  • Discoloured or fractured teeth
  • Bad breath.

Dogs don’t eat much sugar, so they don’t tend to get cavities like humans do.  However, plaque can cause gum disease and pain.  Bacteria inside your dog’s mouth can cause bad breath and even travel into their bloodstream to cause additional problems.  Sadly dental care is a neglected area in dog health, but it’s time that changed!  

So how can you help to care for your dog’s dental health?

Dental care for your puppy

When you bring home a pup, their teeth might not be on your long list of concerns.  But socialization can help to prepare your puppy for dental care in the future.

Your puppy’s sharp little teeth are milk teeth.  That means they’re all about to start falling out!  Unlike humans, dog teeth fall out over just a few weeks, and the tooth root is absorbed into the gums.  Unfortunately there’s no doggy tooth-fairy, but your pup will be rewarded with big adult teeth – and those will need looking after.  Did you know that an adult dog has 42 teeth: more than humans or cats?

  1. Practice handling.
    The most important task is simply behavioral training which allows you to handle the puppy.  Start opening their mouth gently and checking their teeth so that pup will be perfectly happy when you want to start brushing.  
  2. Use a finger brush.
    Even though their milk teeth don’t really need brushing, you can start to clean them using a gentle small brush such as one that fits over your finger.  Use a gentle action.
  3. Play chewing and tugging games.
    Puppies love and learn from interactive games.  You can encourage them to play with chew toys, which will also distract them from chewing on your shoes!  A rope toy is a great choice and tug-of-war helps to exfoliate teeth.  

Which dogs are more prone to dental problems?

In 2021, a study by the Royal Veterinary College in London showed that some breeds are more susceptible than others.  Examining the health records of 22,333 dogs, the research team showed that Toy Poodles, King Charles Spaniels, Greyhounds, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and flat-faced breeds were the most affected by dental problems.  Smaller and older dogs are at higher risk, too.  

The author, Dr O’Neill, highlighted the need for all dogs to have a dental plan.  “This research shows how much hidden misery our dogs often suffer from dental disease. Ask your vet to give you an update on the dental health of your dog at every visit. Be dental aware, and your dog will thank you.” 

What toothpaste should you use for your dog?

When they develop their adult teeth, your dog will need their own toothpaste and toothbrush (hope you weren’t planning to use yours).   There are lots of canine toothpastes on the market in every flavor and style – if you’re bewildered, ask your vet to recommend their favorite.  Doggy toothpaste is specially formulated with an abrasive ingredient that removes plaque and stains.   It’s safe to swallow, and flavored with dog favorites like chicken, beef, or vanilla!

Can I brush my dog’s teeth with baking soda?  Baking soda is useful for so many things, but don’t apply it to your dog’s teeth.  It is toxic for dogs, even in small amounts and as it’s very alkaline, it upsets the acids inside dogs’ stomachs, inducing vomiting.  Surprisingly, it’s still included in some recipes for dog toothpaste, but we don’t recommend brushing your dog’s teeth with baking soda.

Can I brush my dog’s teeth with human toothpaste?  When you’re keen to begin, or you’ve run out of canine toothpaste, you might think about reaching for your own toothpaste.  Human toothpaste is a big no!  It often contains sweeteners such as xylitol, plus high levels of sodium, which can be very bad for dogs.   You also want to avoid any toothpaste which contains alcohol, dye, or antibiotic ingredients.  

How should I apply dog toothpaste?  Some products come with a finger-brush or regular toothbrush alongside the toothpaste.  There are even some which you just squeeze onto the gums and leave to work.   

Here’s a great tip: Before you start brushing, add a little drop of toothpaste to your dog’s dinner.  They’ll get used to the taste (and make positive associations)!

When you begin brushing, here’s how:  Wait until your dog is calm and relaxed (not straight after a game).  Make sure that they are comfortable and don’t expect to do much on your first attempt.  Start on one side and gently lift your dog’s lip to brush the upper teeth.  To reach the lower teeth, tilt their head back a bit while holding the lower jaw.  Don’t press hard with the brush.  Focus on the outward-facing sides of the teeth and try to brush the big teeth first, right down to and including the gum-line.   If you’re new to this, it might take weeks before you can sit down and do a whole-mouth clean!  Take it easy.  Don’t make your dog stressed on the very first go.  One minute each day will be a good start.

What is enzymatic toothpaste?  Enzymes destroy bacteria, which can cause tartar build-up and bad breath in dogs.  How do they work?   Enzymes are proteins which catalyse chemical reactions, breaking down glucose, toxins, and bacteria.  They can also prevent plaque from attaching to teeth.  Enzymes are natural, so they make brilliant and effective toothpastes for dogs.  

Are there any supplements which can help my dog’s teeth?  Vitamins, including calcium and vitamin A and C, improve your dog’s ability to develop strong teeth.  Zinc can reduce the build-up of tartar, and green tea polyphenols help to keep the mouth and gums healthy.  

Other ways to look after your dog’s teeth

Brushing your dog’s teeth can be difficult.  Unless you started when they were young, they can be resistant to the whole idea (we’ve been there).  But there’s still hope.  You can try some other ways to help care for your dog’s oral hygiene.  We have a few ideas!

Dental chews

Dogs love chewing.  It’s their natural method for teeth-cleaning!  Dental chews for dogs range from real rawhide chews to milk-bones and veggie flexible chews.  Choose some that you think your dog will love – dental chews are great because dogs perceive them as treats.  

Chew toys

Don’t assume that dogs have to stick to dental chews, because chew toys can be great too.  Ropes are ideal for puppies, who will fetch and play tug-of-war – while giving their teeth a subtle brush.

Dental mouthwash for dogs

You can try a dental additive which is added to your dog’s drinking bowl.  This can help to prevent plaque and kill oral bacteria, freshening their breath.  Some owners say it’s easier than regular tooth-brushing and it tastes nice for dogs!

Dental sprays and gels

For dogs who won’t accept a toothbrush, a dental spray or gel is ideal.  These can be swiftly squirted or sprayed into the mouth to deliver plaque-busting effects without a struggle.  

Dental wipes

Another idea for dogs who despise the brush: plaque-removing wipes can be rubbed over the teeth and gums using your fingers.  They’re gentle, with dog-friendly flavors and ingredients which will enhance their oral hygiene.

When purchasing oral hygiene products, for your dog or another pet, be aware of counterfeit items.  In 2020 one major pet manufacturer warned consumers that Amazon was recalling fake products  Ask your vet to recommend products for your dog or, if purchasing online, research thoroughly – and buy directly from the manufacturer if possible.  You can find a list of approved dental products at the Veterinary Oral Health Council   

Are there any dental health supplements for dogs?

Our bestselling supplement, The One/products/the-one, was designed with eight key benefits in mind – and one is the reduction of plaque, to provide cleaner teeth and fresher doggy breath.  It features green tea, which is an antibacterial ingredient proven to inhibit periodontal disease in dogs  Give it a try and find out why thousands of owners believe it makes a difference!