Taking Care of Your Dog's Teeth
From teeth cleaning to a scale and polish, there are lots of ways to look after your dog’s teeth
Most puppies have finished teething by seven months, and you’ll see that your own puppy’s small, white deciduous teeth (milk teeth) have been replaced by strong-looking, creamy white adult teeth. It’s really important to take care of those new teeth.
Dogs get dental disease, just like we do, and this can affect their wellbeing and require treatment. Dental treatment normally has to be carried out under general anaesthesia. If you’ve ever had your teeth cleaned using an ultrasonic descaler at the dentist, you’ll know that it would be a lot to ask a pet to tolerate this procedure while they’re awake!
There’s plenty you can do to minimise the chances of your puppy needing a dental procedure in future. Let’s take a look at how you can help to keep your puppy’s teeth in tip-top condition.
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Why is it important to keep dogs’ teeth clean?
When plaque lies on the teeth, it causes gum inflammation (we call this inflammation gingivitis). If your dog has gingivitis, the edges of the gums may look red or darker pink than the rest of the gums and they may bleed when your dog chews on something or has their teeth brushed.
Gradually, the gums shrink back, away from the plaque, but the plaque keeps creeping up towards the gumline. Plaque produces the hard material we call tartar, or dental calculus. The calculus is laid down on the surface of the teeth as the gum recedes and the plaque sits on top of it.
Gradually, the gums recede so much that the attachments between the tooth and its socket break down and this gum disease leads to loose and diseased teeth and a dog in pain and discomfort.
Ways to care for your dog's teeth
Most dogs will let their owners brush their teeth if they’re taught that it can be a pleasant experience, using lots of patience and tasty pet toothpaste.
In the same way as keeping our own teeth clean helps to reduce the need for too much dental treatment, the same goes for dogs. Regular brushing is the most effective thing you can do if you would like your puppy to have a healthy mouth for life. You don’t have to spend hours brushing – just a minute or two every day, or even every two or three days, will make a positive difference to their dental health.
With little jobs like tooth brushing, it’s much more likely that you’ll carry on with them as your puppy grows up if you can make them a regular habit. To do that, you need to make it convenient for yourself and easy to remember.
Keep your puppy’s toothbrush and toothpaste somewhere within easy reach, perhaps with something else you often use for your puppy, like the treat jar, so you’re reminded to brush.
Try to incorporate toothbrushing with something else you do regularly so that it becomes a part of the daily routine. For instance, if you keep the toothbrush with the towel you use to dry your puppy’s feet when they come in, you could get in from an afternoon walk, dry their feet and then clean their teeth.
The two main toothbrush designs available are long, double-ended toothbrushes, and over-the-finger brushes. If you choose the double-ended type, you can use the small head on little mouths and the larger head for the back teeth, once your puppy is big enough. The other type of brush is like a rubber or fabric thimble, which goes over your finger, so you brush the teeth using your fingertip.
You could also use a soft toothbrush designed for children, as these have small heads, soft bristles and a short handle, which can help with control.
There are also different sorts of toothpaste, designed specifically for pets. Pet toothpaste isn’t like the toothpaste we use. It tends to be flavoured and it doesn’t contain fluoride, so it’s fine if pets swallow it.
Your vet team will check your puppy’s teeth each time you take them for an annual health check and vaccination.
Some of the things they’ll be looking for are:
- Retained deciduous teeth – The deciduous canine teeth in particular sometimes stay in place even after the adult teeth have erupted. If they’re left, they can trap food and can cause damage to the adult teeth.
- Broken teeth – Puppies tend to run and tumble about, or pick up and tug things, and deciduous teeth can break quite easily. If you notice broken deciduous or adult teeth, always ask your vet to check them. Broken teeth can allow bacteria to track up inside them and cause abscesses and infections. They may also cause pain (dogs’ teeth are similar to our own in this respect) Depending on the level of damage, a broken tooth may need to be extracted, but sometimes, they can be saved.
- Discoloured teeth – Teeth may become discoloured if they suffer an injury, such as a knock. Also, some medications can cause teeth to discolour.
- Signs of gum disease – The early signs of gum disease are reddening along the edges of the gums. Early gum disease is reversible, with the right care.
- Supernumerary (extra) or missing teeth.
- Overlapping or rotated teeth (some breeds are more prone to this than others are).
Some pet insurance policies include cover for certain types of dental treatment. This is often contingent upon the pet’s mouth having been examined by a vet and also upon the owner following the vet’s recommendations regarding dental care, so it’s worth checking your policy documents.
Making a habit of good home dental care, however much or little you can manage, should help your puppy to enjoy better general health and fewer dental treatments as they go through life.
To see what goes on when your dog comes into the clinic for dental treatment, follow our behind the scenes link.
Puppies and dogs need to chew. When puppies are teething, from about three to seven months of age, chewing helps to relieve some of the discomfort caused by the eruption of adult teeth and it also helps to loosen the milk teeth. Adolescent puppies and dogs (from about seven months up to around 18 months) also have a strong urge to chew.
Chewing has many benefits, including:
- It prevents boredom
- It exercises the jaw muscles
- It usually has a calming effect
- It helps to scrape teeth clean
- It strengthens the periodontal ligament, which is the tissue that attaches each tooth to its bony socket
Lots of types of chews are available and different puppies may prefer one type over another. The point of chews is that they encourage gnawing or scraping - they’re not designed to break up into big chunks. Some puppies and dogs have a really strong chewing action and may chomp off bits of their chews, which they may then try to swallow. If this happens, it’s safer to look for a more robust chew.
Some chews are so hard that dogs who have a very strong biting action can even break their teeth on them. At the other end of the scale, some puppies’ mouths are gentler. If puppies like this are faced with a tough chew, they may get bored and disheartened if they don’t feel they’re getting somewhere with it.
Some dogs develop the habit of playing with stones and pebbles, or other very hard objects. Discourage your puppy from playing with items that could break or wear down their teeth.
Most dogs will let their owners brush their teeth if they’re taught that it can be a pleasant experience, using lots of patience and tasty pet toothpaste. For dogs who aren’t happy to have their teeth brushed, there are still things you can do to help them.
Special mouth rinses or water additives that slow down plaque development are available and there are also diets aimed at maintaining good dental health.
Some diets are made to scrape the teeth as your dog crunches on them. Others contain ingredients that help to prevent plaque from sticking to the teeth and starting the cycle of dental and gum disease.
Your step by step guide to brushing cats and dogs teeth
Introduction to the taste of toothpaste
Wash your hands and smear a small amount of toothpaste onto your index finger. Allow your pet to lick the toothpaste from your finger. Repeat a number of times.
Get your pet used to contact with their mouth
Smear your index finger with toothpaste and then gently slide it into your pet’s mouth, letting it glide over the outer surface of the teeth and gums. Only go as far into the mouth as your pet is comfortable. Repeat a number of times.
Introduce the toothbrush - canine teeth first!
Prepare the toothbrush with water and toothpaste. Let your dog or cat lick some of the toothpaste off the bristles. Gently hold the mouth around the muzzle to stop them chewing if necessary. Start to gently brush the canine teeth (the ‘fangs’) only, using an up and down motion, with the brush angled towards the gumline. There are two on the top jaw and two on the bottom. At this stage avoid the front teeth (incisors) as this is the most sensitive area in the mouth.
The back teeth
As before - start by brushing the canine teeth, then slowly move along to the teeth behind them using a circular motion. Only go as far as your pet is happy with. Brush both sides of the mouth.
As before, start by brushing the canines and then the back teeth. Hold the mouth closed around the muzzle and gently lift the upper lip with the thumb and forefinger bridging the muzzle to reveal the incisor teeth. Many pets are sensitive in this area so proceed very gently. Gently brush the front teeth using an up and down motion. Gradually build up the amount of time spent brushing. For maximum protection tooth brushing should be performed daily.
NOTE: inflamed gums can bleed a little on brushing. It is not painful itself, so persist with the daily brushing to calm the gums. They should no longer bleed after 2-3 weeks of good brushing. There is no substitute for daily tooth brushing, which is the only way to effectively remove plaque from below the gum line. However, in some cases brushing teeth may not be possible and we may recommend other measures such as plaque-reducing oral rinses, chews or dental diets. Beware of unsafe treats and toys such as sticks, hard toys, bones and antlers, which can all cause serious damage to the teeth and mouth.