A Canine’s Canines: A Guide to Dog Dental Health

April 27, 2021


Does your pet like to wake you up first thing in the morning? They jump up onto your bed to remind you it’s breakfast, then trot over to your face for a good-morning lick. Yet as much as you love them, their breath is far less than could be desired—could wake the dead, let alone wake you up. 

Bad breath in dogs is not the normal state of things, despite ‘common knowledge’ and ‘dog breath’ being in the popular lexicon. But don’t dogs take care of that on their own? Don’t they have, I don’t know, ‘enzymes’ for that or something? Where do you even start when it comes to keeping their mouths properly clean? Our walker Nathaniel will guide us through how dog dental health works and what practices you can begin to keep their mouths healthy for the duration of their life.

Dogs don’t clean their own teeth?

Dogs generally rely on harder foods like dry kibble, raw foods, and chew toys to scrape debris off their teeth—raw meat bones are especially excellent for their dental health, while water helps wash away bacteria. They rarely develop cavities since, on average, they don’t consume vast amounts of sugar, which needs to metabolize with certain types of bacteria. 

Dogs, however, are highly prone to gum disease. Diet can not account for the plaque and tartar that sticks to their teeth, requiring active removal to get rid of. Gum disease is also a widespread health problem for dogs because most owners will not do for their pets what they would do for themselves: brush their teeth!

Brushing your dog’s teeth

Yes! As odd as it may sound, it is a fact that dogs do need daily teeth brushing. A consistent brushing routine is the best option for preventing plaque and tartar buildup. While there are less invasive methods to assist with your dog’s oral health—dental kibble, mouth rinses, sprays, wipes, etc.—they’re no replacement for hands-on daily brushing.

It’s possible to train your pet to receive daily teeth brushing, especially if they’re younger when you start. Desensitize them to having your fingers in their mouth by feeding them a treat, such as peanut butter or any other kind they enjoy, then while they chew, lightly run your finger along their gum line. With practice, praise, and positive reinforcement they should become comfortable with you moving around their teeth after several sessions. Dogs thrive on routine, so the more you can make brushing a daily practice, the more comfortable they’ll be. 

Once you can move around your dog’s mouth freely, you can introduce a toothbrush and paste. Let them lick the toothpaste off the brush first to see how they respond, and proceed if they react positively. Pet toothpaste is safe to eat, so you won’t have to worry about your dog swallowing it once it’s applied. Never, ever use human toothpaste on a pet—the chemicals in human toothpaste are toxic to pets and can upset their stomach at best. Find their favorite flavor that they love, and they’ll enjoy the process all the more!

Always error on the side of light pressure when brushing your dog’s teeth. Aggressive or heavy-handed brushing can cause irritation and even bleeding. If your dog is smaller, you can use a short-handled brush or even special silicone brushes that fit onto your finger. If you have a larger-breed dog, use a long-handled brush to reach to the back of their molars. 

What if my dog doesn’t let me brush his teeth?

Suppose you’re nervous about going near their mouth with your hands. In that case, you can use less invasive tools such as the aforementioned dental kibble, greenie treats, oral sprays, water-soluble rinses, or dental wipes. 

Mouthwashes won’t be a substitute for active brushing (looking at you… former randomly-assigned Freshman year roommate), but if your dog is more prone to biting, anxiety, or for any other reason will not tolerate you near their mouth, these alternatives are better than no routine at all. This will mean, of course, that they may need to see a veterinary dentist more often. In fact, showing aggression when you try to touch their mouth can signify they might have dental problems, as they could be reacting out of pain. 

If biting or aversion is a frequent problem, consult a professional trainer for additional strategies and consult your vet about other methods or products you can use in the interim.

Annual dental visits for dogs

Like humans, dogs should see a dentist at least once a year. Most veterinary centers will provide dentistry, though there are specialized veterinary dental centers out there. During these checkups, dogs are put under anesthesia (to prevent biting or other adverse reactions) for a complete examination and cleaning: plaque and tartar removal, x-rays, polishing, and gum inspections are routine. 

To tell if your dog is developing dental problems that need more immediate attention, watch how they eat and chew. Are they dropping food frequently, favoring one side of their mouth, or otherwise uncomfortable when eating or chewing toys? Are their gums reddening or developing plaque, or do they consistently have rancid breath? Take note of any changes in their behavior and check their mouth every so often for discoloration on their teeth and gum line.  

The easiest way to remember how to take care of your dogs’ teeth is to remember how you would take care of your teeth. Would you brush your teeth only once or twice a week, or never? Would you only ever use mouthwashes? When was the last time you saw a dentist? These same principles apply just as well to doggie dental care. Brushing, proper diet, consistency, and annual professional care are the tenants of good oral health. This way, the next time your dog greets you in the morning with a big wet face lick, it’s a breath of fresh air!


Thank you, Nathaniel, for this guide to doggie dental care! Windy City Paws is a Fear Free Chicago dog walker and petsitter committed to providing helpful information to Chicago dog owners through its blog.