Some dogs have sparkling white teeth (or at least, whitish teeth that are free of tartar) throughout their lifetimes, with absolutely no thought or effort required of their owners. Those are the lucky ones – the owners, I mean – because more than 80 percent of dogs develop a form of canine gum disease by the age of just three years, according to the American Veterinary Dental Society. The owners of those dogs – that is, most of us – should be brushing our dogs’ teeth regularly to prevent the accumulation of plaque and tartar that precipitates gum disease.
Proponents of raw diets for dogs believe that the mechanical action of chewing raw meat and bones and the superior nutrition provided by the diets help maintain healthy teeth. That may be true, but for dogs on more conventional diets, regular brushing is the most effective method of keeping a dog’s teeth free of tartar and plaque. It’s also far less costly than semiannual trips to the vet for professional cleaning, and poses none of the risks of the general anesthesia required for the veterinary dental hygienist to do a thorough job.
The procedure isn’t fun; that’s true. It’s not particularly comfortable for you or your dog. But it doesn’t have to be torturous, either, especially if you use the positive behavior modification methods you are familiar with from WDJ’s training articles.
If every puppy had her teeth brushed every day, from the time she had teeth, the job would be far simpler. The fact is, most of us aren’t aware that we should be brushing Flossie’s teeth until that “well dog” visit when our vet gives us a $500 estimate for Flossie’s appointment with the aforementioned hygienist. The earlier you start paying attention to and messing around with your dog’s mouth, the easier it will be – and you may even prevent that $500 vet bill.
Introduce your dog to the concept gradually. Start by lifting her lips at least a few times a day, and visually examining her teeth for gradually increasingly longer moments. Keep some yummy treats on hand – more than just ordinary kibble. Use something really scrumptious, like meat or cheese. Reward her richly for sessions in which she cooperates, even if her compliance is fleeting at first. If the experience is consistently rewarding, and not fraught with physical “corrections,” forcible restraint, or verbal warnings, she’ll participate more and more willingly. Remember, dogs do what works for them. If the discomfort of the exercise outweighs the value – to the dog – of the reward, she’s quite reasonably going to vote against. Keep the sessions short and rewarding, and give her plenty of verbal encouragement.
When you can lift her lips and visually examine her teeth without muss or fuss, start rubbing her gums and touching her teeth with a wet forefinger. Again, keep it short and positive, and make sure she associates this experience with something extra delicious afterward, whether it’s some fresh roast beef or a session with her favorite toy.
When you can reliably and comfortably examine and touch your dog’s teeth and gums with your wet fingers, start using a bit of clean, wet gauze wrapped around your finger to perform rudimentary toothbrushing. As before, keep these sessions short, happy, and frequent. As with all training, the more frequently you practice, the more quickly your dog will progress.
The first few times you introduce your dog to a soft-bristled toothbrush, put something yummy on the bristles and let her lick it off. Then perform your usual exam, gum rubbing, and tooth touching, with a bit of brushing with the brush added in. Lavishly reward your dog’s cooperation.
There are a number of toothpastes made especially for dogs on the market; you’ll find a variety in any pet supply store. It’s not critical that you use one, but it is important that you don’t use human toothpaste, even one intended for babies. Most human toothpastes contain xylitol, which is toxic to dogs. Plus, human toothpastes are invariably mint-flavored, which dogs don’t generally enjoy. Pet toothpastes, in contrast, come in flavors like “poultry” and “filet mignon” – yum!
The truth is, you don’t actually need to use toothpaste at all. Many dogs object more to the introduction of a new taste in their mouths than to the brush, anyway. Just keep the bristles wet, perhaps by swishing the brush in a cup of water every half-minute or so as you work.
As you progress, gradually replace more and more of the gum rubbing and tooth touching with more and more brushing. Always use a wet, soft-bristled brush, and brush gently in small circles, with the bristles angled toward the gums. If you have any questions about brushing technique, ask your veterinarian or the vet’s staff to demonstrate.
The long-handled brush will permit you to reach farther and farther back in your dog’s mouth. Take care to ensure you don’t poke her gums or gag her as you work toward the molars, but do try to reach all the back teeth. This is the most common site of tartar accumulation and periodontal disease, as well as the site of the teeth dogs use most for chewing their food.
Your dog’s gums may bleed a little bit when you first start getting in the habit of brushing them. This should cease with regular brushing, but consult your veterinarian if it persists.
Things to look for
Make sure that you visually inspect your dog’s gums and teeth as you work. Keep an eye out for swollen or reddened gums; broken, fractured, or loose teeth; particularly sensitive areas; and especially foul breath. Any of these should be investigated by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Untreated, dental problems can quickly lead to systemic infection and even serious heart disease, as the oral bacteria enter the bloodstream via the blood vessels in the gums. In fact, many chronic (and seemingly unrelated) health problems are due to periodontal disease.
If your dog’s teeth and gums are already in bad shape, see your veterinarian right away. It’s much easier to maintain healthy teeth after a professional cleaning.
Nancy Kerns is Editor of WDJ.