Teeth brushing tips

How to brush your pet’s teeth
(and why you should)

by Jen Reeder

Can you imagine going a day without brushing your teeth? Of course not! Yet many people don’t brush their pet’s teeth, so most dogs and cats have evidence of dental disease by the time they are just 3 years old.

A good home dental care regimen can help your pet stay healthy and even save you money by prolonging the need for dental cleanings or tooth extractions, according to Morgen Deramus, DVM, associate veterinarian at AAHA-accredited Advanced Animal Care of Colorado in Fort Collins, Colo.

“Training when they’re young and making sure you’re doing it in a way that creates a positive association is the most beneficial for them,” she says. “With dogs, I usually recommend approaching it like any other training—lots of positive reinforcement, going slowly and stopping before that puppy gets aggravated or irritated with the process.”

Deramus suggests starting with special pet toothpaste flavored like beef or poultry. Then:

  • Put a pea-size amount of toothpaste in your pet’s mouth and immediately reward him with a treat, toy, or interaction.
  • The next day, increase the amount of time between giving the toothpaste and the reward. Gradually increase the time each day.
  • Next, put the toothpaste on a small finger brush or toothbrush and slowly introduce to your pet’s mouth. Reward.
  • Eventually work up to brushing the teeth, particularly focusing on the outer surface that faces the lip and away from the gum line. Reward.
  • Continue brushing every day for the best results.

Deramus says cats can be trained in a similar way, though large toothbrushes are too big for their mouths. Instead, use an infant finger brush or a gauze square to brush the teeth in a circular motion, just as you would brush your own teeth. If you have issues with your cat moving too much while brushing, you can wrap him in a towel and hold him close to you.

Beware of nonanesthetic dentistry

Some groomers, pet stores, and even nonaccredited veterinary hospitals offer “nonanesthetic pet dentals,” but buyer beware: This procedure is stressful for pets, does not treat any issues beneath the gum line, and can be potentially dangerous.

“Be very cautious of people who offer those anesthetic-free dental cleanings,” Deramus says. “[Nonanesthetic dentistry] is not a safe way to clean teeth. It can often lead to secondary issues when the dog is awake and moving … such as slicing gums and breaking teeth. It creates huge divots in the enamel, and doesn’t protect [the pets’] airways, either.”

AAHA issued a mandatory dental standard in 2013 that all dental procedures in AAHA-accredited practices must be performed under anesthesia with patients intubated, and that “cleaning a companion animal's teeth without general anesthesia is considered unacceptable and below the standard of care.” The position was endorsed by the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC).

“Cats can be trained just like dogs if you put your mind to it,” Deramus says.

If, despite your best efforts, tooth brushing is still impossible and has begun to affect your bond with your pet, Deramus says many other products, like food and water additives or dental chews, can help. Just be sure to look for the “Seal of Acceptance” from the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) when shopping for them, she says.

Indications of dental disease include bad breath, discoloration of the teeth, and redness of the gums. AAHA’s dental care guidelines recommend annual professional, anesthetized cleanings—beginning at 1 year for cats and small dogs, and 2 years for large breeds—to prevent these and other oral health problems.

According to Deramus, this includes the transfer of bacteria and infection into the bloodstream, which can affect your pet’s overall well-being.

When this happens, “the blood then goes into the major organs of the body and can cause major damage there,” she says.

Finally, abscessed teeth and other dental issues should be taken care of—or better yet, avoided—because they are painful. Since cats tend to be “pretty silent in their disease,” Deramus has seen seemingly standoffish animals who would hide from people become happy and outgoing after dental treatment.

“It can really unmask the true nature of that animal when you take care of things that cause chronic pain,” she says. “And what do we want for our animals? More than anything else, I think we want quality of life.”