Dental care for dogs: Tips & techniques for a healthier smile

Dental health care for dogs is something I am often asked about. Although I am not a veterinary dentist, I’d be happy to share with you the knowledge that I do have on dental care for dogs. I will also provide you with additional valuable resources, such as research and informative articles, for those interested in delving deeper into dog dental care and health.

Hopefully, this information will help answer some of your concerns and questions regarding your dog’s oral health.

A bit of basics: Understanding dental disease in dogs

Did you know that cavities are rare in dogs? Our primary concern in dog dental health is the bacteria that accumulate around the gums, leading to a condition known as periodontal disease.

The word ‘periodontal’ comes from two Greek words: ‘perio’, meaning ‘around’, and ‘odont’, meaning ‘tooth’. So, it’s all about the area around the tooth.

Periodontal disease in dogs begins with the formation of plaque, a sticky film composed of bacteria and food particles. If not removed, plaque hardens into tartar, which adheres strongly to your dog’s teeth.

Tartar build-up near the gumline creates a perfect environment for bacteria to thrive, leading to inflammation of the gums (gingivitis). Gingivitis is the initial stage of gum disease, but it can be reversed with good oral hygiene.

If left untreated, gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, a more serious and irreversible condition where the support structures of the teeth, including the jawbone, are damaged.

The important thing to note here is that periodontal disease doesn’t just affect the mouth. The bacteria can enter the bloodstream and spread to vital organs or virtually anywhere the bloodstream carries them, causing systemic health issues. This highlights the importance of regular dental care.

Fortunately, there is a lot you can do at home to prevent periodontal disease. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Toothbrushing (and yes, I can hear you sigh)

I get it, but the fact is that tooth brushing is the most important and essential key to your dog’s dental health care. It has the same positive effect on your dog’s gums and teeth as it does on yours.

Approximately 80% of tartar accumulates on the outer surfaces of your dog’s teeth (cheek side), so focus your effort there.

When choosing a toothpaste for your dog, opt for an enzymatic pet toothpaste, such as this one. This specific type of toothpaste is designed to work by applying it to the teeth and letting the enzymes break down plaque and tartar.

Never use human toothpaste as these contain foaming agents that are unsafe if swallowed, which is likely to happen when used on dogs. And please don’t try to make your own toothpaste at home. I’ve seen websites suggesting ingredients such as baking soda, coconut oil and even peanut butter —tasty, sure, but not the best idea.

If your dog has sensitive teeth, use a softer brush, such as a child’s toothbrush, and apply less pressure. You can also wrap cotton gauze around your finger. Gauze is more abrasive and effective than rubber finger brushes but less invasive than a brush with a handle. Of course, if your dog seems painful or bleeding occurs, stop brushing immediately.

Now, I am fully aware that advising to brush your dog’s teeth is one thing, but the reality can be quite different. Toothbrushing can be a time-consuming task, and not all dogs are cooperative. So, for many dog owners, getting inside their dog’s mouth on a regular basis is simply never going to happen.

If brushing your dog’s teeth is an impossible job, you can still use an enzymatic dog toothpaste. Rather than brush, simply try to ‘smear’ the toothpaste onto the teeth with your finger, allowing the enzymes to do their work. While this method is less effective than brushing, it still offers benefits in maintaining dental health.

Dental chews

Some chews have the potential to reduce plaque and tartar build-up. However, I do not recommend them as a substitute for toothbrushing. Think of them more as an occasional supplement to your dog’s regular dental health care routine.

And do keep a few things in mind:

  • Dental chews can be high in calories – sometimes a lot! You don’t want to swap dental issues with a weight problem.
  • Be skeptical. Just because a product claims to support dental health doesn’t mean it does. Check the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s list of product recommendations or ask your vet to recommend a product that actually does what it claims.
  • Hard chews, such as antlers or bones, can fracture teeth. Rule of thumb: if the chew doesn’t “give” a little bit when you press it with your thumbnail, then it’s too hard for your dog and could break or crack a tooth.

Dental water additives

Water additives may seem easy and practical for maintaining your dog’s dental health. As the name suggests, it’s a liquid solution you add to your dog’s water bowl to control plaque and tartar.

The debate over the effectiveness of water additives is as diverse as the products themselves. Some swear by their benefits, while others don’t see a change. While there is some promising research showing that these products can help maintain oral health in dogs, we should be a little cautious in interpreting these results due to study limitations and funding sources.

My two pennies’ worth: If I am honest, I am not sure I’d recommend them. Many of my clients have used them and thought they worked somewhat but not nearly enough.

Here’s my main concern: some products contain varying levels of minerals but do not specify which ones or in what quantities. This makes me a little cautious, especially when it comes to dogs with health concerns.

That said, I do wholeheartedly hope that additional research eventually demonstrates that these products are indeed useful. Dental disease is a serious condition, and if we can help prevent it by simply adding an additive to our dogs’ water, that’s a huge step towards better health for our dogs.

Dental wipes

Dental wipes for dogs are pre-moistened wipes designed to be gentle on your dog’s gums while effectively cleaning teeth. Like brushing, dental wipes are best used daily.

I haven’t used dental wipes myself. I can certainly see their ease of use, but my thoughts are that if your dog will allow you in his mouth, brush your dog’s teeth, as this is far more effective.

Raw bones

The question of whether raw bones work is a thorny one. While there is evidence that raw bones do help keep your dog’s teeth and gums healthy, it’s important we don’t overlook the risks.

Raw bones can cause all sorts of medical problems, such as damaged teeth, mouth or tongue injuries and internal blockages. This risk is especially high for dogs who eat energetically or already have signs of gingivitis.

Personally, I’d err on the side of caution. Not only could a raw bone end up causing harm, but it might also lead to an expensive trip to the vet.

With that said, I am a realist. You may still feel that a raw bone is the best option. So, for those who’d like to use raw bones as part of a regular dental care plan, my advice would be to consult your vet first. They can provide personalised advice based on your dog’s health status and dental needs. They can also talk you through some of the pros and cons of offering raw bones and which to choose.

Regular vet check-ups

Regular trips to the vet are essential for your dog’s dental well-being. During these visits, your vet can carefully examine your dog’s teeth and gums, looking for any signs of trouble, such as infections or gum disease.

Spotting any issues early can prevent them from snowballing into more severe health problems.

Key takeaways

  • Prevention is key, and home dental care is about stopping issues before they start.
  • The VOHC site is a helpful starting point when looking for products with a seal of acceptance
  • While toothbrushing is optimal, applying enzymatic toothpaste directly to the teeth without brushing can make a difference.
  • Dental chews should be chosen carefully to avoid excessive calorie intake and potential tooth damage.
  • Raw bones can help maintain dental health but carry risks of injury and blockages.
  • The effect of water additives is debated. Use them with caution, especially for dogs with health concerns.
  • Consult your vet for personalised guidance, and don’t skip those regular check-ups!

By taking care of your dog’s teeth, you’re not just ensuring a bright smile but also fresher breath and a happier, healthier dog.

Additional resources for dog dental care

Home Dental Care: Toothvet

VOHC Accepted Products

Brushing your Dog’s Teeth: VeterinaryPartner