Toothbrushing for dogs and cats

You’re saying I should brush my pet’s teeth every day?

This is one of the most common responses when at-home toothbrushing with

pet owners during consultations! Yet the benefits of regular at-home toothbrushing can be enormous, both for your pet’s comfort and your wallet. And there is always the added benefit of a fresher breath. It is really important to keep in mind that “doggy breath” is not normal.

What is doggy breath?

Also called the medical term “halitosis”, doggy breath is most frequently a sign of gum and dental disease. Just like in humans, bacteria build up on the tooth surfaces and under the gums, leading to plaque formation and bad breath. Imagine how much plaque we would have on our teeth if we never brushed them, and how sore our gums would be! Our pets are just the same as us . Therefore, they massively benefit from regular toothbrushing at home.

What happens if my pet has dental disease?

Gum and dental disease are extremely painful and can lead to other complications such as gingivitis (sore and inflamed gums), and tooth root abscesses. They can even contribute to heart disease! This is because bacteria that multiply under the gums can enter the bloodstream travel to the heart and cause endocarditis . Think how uncomfortable it is when we get something stuck between our teeth and how much it can hurt our gum. Our pets are just the same, our mouths are a very sensitive part of our bodies. It is estimated that at least 80% of all dogs older than 3 years have gum and/or dental disease.

In this guide, we will discuss how to brush your pets’ teeth at home, with the aim of making it an easy and positive experience for both you and your beloved companion.

The key to a good at-home toothbrushing routine is to build it up gradually, with lots of positive reinforcement and rewards.

Suddenly starting to poke around in your dog or cat’s mouth may (understandably) not be appreciated by them, especially as they don’t know that you are trying to help them.

How do I introduce toothbrushing to my pet?

The first week you introduce toothbrushing, start by simply lifting up their lips to expose their teeth and touching the surfaces of the crowns of their teeth (the parts of the teeth furthest away from their gums) with your fingertip. Do this just before feeding them their breakfast and/or dinner. This will create positive re-enforcement and mean that your pet gets used to having their mouth handled, and then rewarded for it.

In your second week, introduce a piece of damp, soft cloth such as a piece of old t-shirt – around half the size of a washcloth/facecloth is ideal. Use this to gently touch and then rub their teeth crowns, for around 15 seconds, give a small treat, and then repeat for a further 15 seconds with a treat break between each, until you have covered all areas of their mouth. Make sure not to leave your pet unattended with the cloth though! Some pets will try and eat anything, be it deemed edible by us or not!

To help increase your pet’s tolerance of this, you can rub a little bit of special pet toothpaste, peanut butter (use pure peanut butter only, with no additives), or even just a little bit of wet dog food on the cloth.

On your third week, repeat the same process used in week two, but this time gradually start touching closer to your pet’s gums with the piece of cloth. Do this very gradually and gently. Your pet’s gums may be pretty sensitive, especially if they have never had their teeth brushed before, so take this slowly.

Over the next few weeks, you can gradually introduce a toothbrush into your pet’s routine. You don’t need anything fancy for this, a soft children’s toothbrush is fine, as it is small enough to comfortably work around most dog’s mouths. For cats, if they tolerate a small toddler or children’s toothbrush, great. If not, you might have more success with a “finger toothbrush”. Finger toothbrushes can also be very useful for dogs with smaller mouths and nervous dogs which may be more comfortable with something on the tip of your finger, rather than a full-sized toothbrush. Again though, it is very important not to leave your pet unsupervised with this!

Within a couple of weeks, you should be able to brush all of the outer areas of your pet’s teeth. Make sure and take things nice and slow, with lots of rewards and verbal encouragement (telling your pet what a good girl/boy they are!) to make sure it is a positive experience for both of you.

If your pet will let you brush the inner surfaces (the parts on the tongue side of their mouth) of their teeth, that is fantastic! However, even with lots of gradual introduction and encouragement, many pets simply will not tolerate their mouth being open for long enough to do this. Fortunately, dogs and cats both have quite large and moveable tongues, which helps to reduce plaque buildup on the inner surfaces of the teeth, so don’t worry too much if your pet won’t let you brush every part of their mouth. Even regularly brushing the parts of their teeth on the outside (lips side) of their mouth will make a massive positive difference to their oral health.

Does my dog need special toothpaste when I brush his teeth?

Believe it or not, no! Studies have found that it is the brushing action that is the most vital part of toothbrushing. You can get various pet toothpaste and gels. Some of these contain special ingredients, such as enzymes that help break down the plaque, as well as mouth- safe antibacterial washes which can help slow down plaque build-up. These can all help with increasing your pet’s oral health.\

However, using something as simple as a little bit of pure peanut butter, low-salt gravy, or even dipping the toothbrush into some of their wet food can also help make toothbrushing a positive and effective at-home treatment for your pet. If you are choosing a pet-specific toothpaste or gel, make sure you choose one with the VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council) stamp to show it is suitable for your pet.

As an important note, never use human toothpastes or human mouthwashes for pets. These almost always contain ingredients that (although human-safe) can be extremely harmful for our pets, and can even be toxic to our cats and dogs.

How often do I need to brush my pet’s teeth?

Research has found that plaque build-up recurs on teeth just 24 hours after removing it by brushing. Therefore, ideally, we should aim to brush our pet’s teeth daily. Understandably, with busy lifestyles, this is not always possible. However, studies suggest brushing a minimum of three times a week, and that any less frequently than this is generally ineffective. Building a good routine is the best way of increasing the likelihood of brushing on a regular basis. You feed your dog every day, so why not make a habit of spending one minute brushing their teeth and then treat them with their dinner afterward?

Once you have built up a good toothbrushing routine with your pet, suitably aged children can even be taught how to do this as part of their “chores” in the house. Of course, make sure your pet’s temperament is suitable for this and that children are supervised as appropriate to ensure everyone is safe while doing this!

But can’t my vet (or veterinary nurse) just clean my pet’s teeth?

Think of how filthy our own teeth would be if they were only cleaned when we went to the dentist! Our pets are the exact same. Every pet benefits from annual COHAT exams (Comprehensive Oral Health Assessment and Treatment) by a licensed veterinary professional, but for ongoing management, at-home brushing is essential. It is important to note that a COHAT involves so much more than just “cleaning” the teeth and is an essential part of your pet’s healthcare regime.

My dog has red, sore-looking gums and bad breath, should I brush them?

get your pet’s teeth checked by a licensed veterinary professional before brushing them. Your vet will be able to examine your pet’s teeth during

their annual health exam or vaccination appointment, but it is best to book them in sooner than this for a check if you have any concerns. We may give recommendations for brushing and/or advise that they have a dedicated dental consultation to discuss further. If your pet has evidence of dental disease, get professional veterinary treatment and then follow up with regular toothbrushing.

Brushing your pet’s teeth is one of the most rewarding things you can do for your beloved cat or dog. Establishing a good routine can make a massive difference to their quality of life and ensure they enjoy every single one of their meals throughout each o f their life stages. Regular toothbrushing can even help save you money in the long term. Pets who have their teeth brushed on a regular basis have significantly fewer dental issues, and therefore

We always recommend that you generally need far less dental work or extractions during their annual dental exams, so it is a win-win!

Two fantastic specialist veterinary dentists you could follow on Instagram are @toothy.thomson and @mortenvetdentist, who are an absolute wealth of information and have lots of educational videos to help you help your pet on your toothbrushing journey.


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  • –  Periodontology, in Veterinary Dentistry, Principals and Practice.Wiggs RB, Lobprise HB—Philadelphia: Lippincott—Raven, 1997, pp 186-231.
  • –  Periodontal disease. Niemiec BA. Top Companion Anim Med 23:72-80, 2008.
  • –  Experimental gingivitis and frequency of tooth brushing in the beagle dog model. Clinical findings. Tromp JA, van Rijn LJ, Jansen J. J Clin Periodontol 13:190-194, 1986.

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