Clean Teeth, Healthy Dogs

Sooner or later, all dogs can benefit from having their teeth brushed.


Everyone likes to see a beaming, white smile. Perhaps we’re hard-wired to be attracted to those beings radiating health and vigor. Subconsciously, maybe, we understand that clean, strong teeth reflect youth, a robust immune system, and a well-nourished body.

In dogs, that healthy white “smile” is especially significant as an indicator of overall health and function. Dogs use their mouths not only to eat and drink, but also to communicate, groom, play, and socialize. A healthy mouth is vital for adequate performance of all these roles.

Plaque and tartar accumulate on canine teeth just like ours. Plaque is made of proteins from saliva, which interact with bacteria. If left to accumulate on teeth, bacteria quickly multiply and can invade the gums around the teeth, causing inflammation known as gingivitis. If plaque is not removed, inflammation of the gums can spread to the bone around the teeth, leading in turn to bone loss or periodontal disease. Without adequate bony support, teeth may become loose, or even fall out.

Tartar, or calculus, forms when minerals from saliva cause plaque on the teeth to harden. For older dogs and small dogs with small teeth, plaque accumulation and subsequent disease can progress quickly.

Poor oral health poses more than just a social problem for its canine victims; it may also contribute to poor overall health. “There are clear indications that oral health status has a far reaching effect on an animal’s general health,” says Dr. Frank Verstraete, clinician at the Dentistry and Oral Surgery Service at the University of California, Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH). “Periodontal disease may cause bacteria and toxins to enter the bloodstream with potentially negative effects on internal organs. On the flip side, poor systemic health may manifest in the oral cavity in various ways, and exacerbate periodontal disease.” Veterinarians often find that chronically ill dogs quickly improve after professional dental cleaning and resolution of oral infections.

Frequent exams
All dogs should have their teeth examined regularly for signs of tartar, gum disease, and cracked or loose teeth. Dog owners should make it a point to look at their dogs’ teeth at least once a month, and to schedule a veterinary exam at least once a year. Large dogs, with their adequately spaced, big teeth, tend to have fewer problems with excessive tartar and resultant gingivitis, but their powerful jaws may earn them more tooth fractures than smaller dogs. Small dogs – especially toy breeds – are far more apt to have problems related to tooth crowding, including tartar buildup and gum disease. In some toy breeds, these problems may be seen in dogs as young as one year old.

Frequent examinations of your dog’s teeth are necessary because there is so much variation in the development of dental problems. Some dogs may enjoy perfect dental health into their dotage; others get a reputation for their bad breath and brown teeth at an early age. Of course, signs of serious problems, such as bleeding or inflamed gums, exposed nerves, and/or broken or loose teeth warrant an immediate trip to the veterinarian for further examination and treatment.

Why teeth go bad
There are many possible contributing factors that explain this wide range of dental experiences.

Oral conformation and perhaps even oral chemistry may be a function of the dog’s genetic inheritance. If a dog is the product of two parents with crowded, crooked teeth, he’s likely to exhibit this conformation.

Some lucky dogs may well be born with genes that are responsible for protective oral chemistry that inhibits bacterial growth. Some dogs have good spit! Saliva helps to wash food down to the digestive tract, and functions as the first step in digestion.

While salivary amylase initiates the first step in carbohydrate breakdown, other salivary enzymes work with the mineral sodium to disinfectant the oral cavity, breaking down bacteria and microorganisms in food. Adequate salivary flow is a dog’s first line of immune defense; if drugs or treatment (such as those used in chemotherapy or radiation cancer treatments) sufficiently limit saliva production, oral health may suffer.

Diet also plays a role in dental health – although the matter of which diet is most beneficial for the dog’s teeth is a lightning rod for controversy.

Holistic practitioners and “natural diet” advocates tend to blame the unnatural preponderance of carbohydrates and sugars in commercial foods for the buildup of plaque and tartar on canine teeth. They also tend to credit an evolutionary diet with the ability to reverse dental disease and/or maintain dental health. These diets feature lots of raw, meaty bones such as chicken backs or necks, which are either given to the dog whole or ground into a thick paste. Veterinarian and author Dr. Ian Billinghurst, one of the earliest proponents of a “Bones And Raw Food” (BARF) diet for dogs, recommends that such appropriate raw bones are given to dogs whole, in order to reap the benefits of chewing and gnawing biological materials to get teeth clean. However, he also asserts that dogs who consume raw, meaty bones gain the same benefit from the biological activity still present in the material.

Veterinarians who practice conventional medicine would rather put their faith in nutritionists and other food scientists to solve dental problems. Commercial dog food manufacturers concur, and encourage science that supports this tack. Untold millions have been spent by industry leaders to research and develop “treatment foods” that can help keep canine teeth clean. Most “dental diets” utilize oversize or tougher food substrates to abrade tartar, cleaning it away. Some commercial food manufacturers add a chemical substance (polyphosphate) that can reduce the formation of plaque (in trials, by 9 percent) and tartar (in trials, by 58 percent) to their regular canine diets.

Chewing on edible or nonedible toys may help some dogs keep their teeth clean and white. Again, though, it’s a crapshoot. For some individuals, regular chewing keeps teeth scraped clean and gums healthy. For others, chewing may result in cracked teeth, bleeding gums, or serious digestive problems resulting from swallowed chew items. Every veterinarian has at least one story about surgically removing objects from the middle of an avid chewer in the middle of the night. (Since I’m married to a veterinarian who specializes in emergency medicine, I’ve heard a lot of these stories!)

Taking action
If you’re lucky, your examinations of your dog’s teeth reveal nothing but strong, white teeth surrounded by tight, pink gums. Keep doing whatever you are doing for that dog!

At some time or another, though, most of us will discover some amount of tartar formation, and possibly, some gum inflammation, too. This may not constitute a medical emergency, but it should prompt you to immediately schedule an appointment with your veterinarian, anyway. A professional cleaning will be needed to get your dog’s teeth back on the fast track to health, which you can then maintain. Routine periodontal treatment performed by a veterinarian includes ultrasonic scaling, subgingival manual scaling, and polishing, all of which must happen under general anesthesia.

Why hurry? Because gum disease can quickly escalate into bone loss. According to Edward Eisner, DVM, Diplomate of the American Veterinary Dental College, “In a situation of chronic inflammation, the bone will progressively shrink away from the gums, keeping a distance of 1.5mm from the inflammation. Though an Akita tooth may have a root 30mm long, the tooth root of a Chihuahua may be only 5mm long. The Akita has time before there’s a noticeable problem, but if the Chihuahua loses 1.5mm of bone, he’s lost a third of his teeth’s support, and has only a couple of years before radical therapy is needed. Older dogs that have experienced slow, chronic bone loss due to inflammation may also require extensive therapy.”

Prevention is preferable
Perhaps you think you’d rather have your dog’s teeth cleaned every year, rather than forcing yourself and your dog to endure regular toothbrushing sessions? Let’s talk about the monetary incentives to brush. A complete dental cleaning (under general anesthesia, the only way to get the job done right) may cost anywhere from $250 (pretty cheap) to $800 (commonly seen in large urban practices).

Depending on your dog’s condition and your veterinarian’s preferred procedure, the bill might reflect charges for overnight hospitalization, blood tests and urinalysis (to check kidney and liver function, which can affect the dog’s anesthesia experience), anesthesia and monitoring during surgery, antibiotics (to prevent dislodged, bloodborne bacteria from wreaking havoc elsewhere in the body), dental Xrays (to check the condition of the teeth roots and the underlying bone), and, of course, the examination and cleaning and polishing itself.

Shall we start brushing now?

Just do it
Numerous studies have shown that in the absence of plaque, periodontal disease will not develop. Nothing succeeds at plaque removal like toothbrushing, and it takes just a few minutes a day.

For tips on this simple matter, we turned to another expert from the UC Davis VMTH, Cecilia Gorrel, DDS, MRCVS. Dr. Gorrel is a dental clinician and lecturer, and an enthusiastic advocate of introducing your dog to toothbrushing gradually, and as early in life as possible.

Dr. Gorrel says it’s relatively easy to get a puppy to accept and even enjoy having his teeth brushed. She suggests that you start with maybe 30 seconds the first time, just rubbing your finger over his teeth and gums. Make him comfortable, approaching from the side rather than the front. Small dogs can be held in your lap.

Dr. Gorrel also recommends that you use a piece of gauze the first few times you try to touch the puppy or dog’s teeth. A folded-over piece of cloth serves as a good introductory toothbrush. Try moving up to a “fingerbrush” during the training phase, but every attempt should be made to get your pet to accept a soft nylon filament toothbrush, says Dr. Gorrel.

Using a tasty toothpaste will help win your dog’s compliance. But don’t use human toothpaste, which contains foaming agents that are irritating to a dog’s stomach; use a toothpaste formulated (and flavored) for pets, instead.

If you try to clean every single tooth in the dog’s mouth during your first session, you might not see your dog again for a while. Try starting with just a few teeth, gradually increasing the number of teeth cleaned each time until the whole mouth can be cleaned in a single session.

Also, suggests Dr. Gorrel, the dog’s mouth doesn’t even need to be opened; it’s mainly the outer surfaces of the teeth – especially where the gum and tooth meet – that need brushing. Lifting the lip and cheek away from the teeth with the mouth closed will allow access to the outer surfaces of the teeth furthest back.

With daily practice, your dog will quickly get used to the routine, says Dr. Gorrel. Homecare is more likely to be acceptable to an older pet if it is introduced as an extension of a pre-existing routine, such as an evening walk, grooming, or play time. Offer a reward at the end of the session, such as a game, walk, or a treat. Encouraging saliva flow also helps rinse the mouth, flushing the dental surfaces.

A little warning: Daily toothbrushing constitutes doing as much as you can do to keep your dog’s teeth clean, but it may not preclude the need for professional cleaning for his whole life. “We all brush our teeth everyday, but still need to get our teeth cleaned periodically,” explains Dr. Gorrel. “Consider that even with daily toothbrushing, most animals still need to have their teeth professionally cleaned at variable intervals.” And imagine how short those intervals would be if you have a plaque-prone pooch and you didn’t brush.

Don’t delay
Well, go ahead. Lift your dog’s lips and take a look. Don’t think because your dog is young that you’ve got time to do this later. As the UC Davis veterinary dentist Dr. Verstraete says, “According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, more then 80 percent of dogs develop gum disease by the age of just three years. Gingivitis is reversible and periodontal disease is preventable. When plaque is removed by tooth brushing, the gums and bone around the teeth will stay healthy.”

Also With This Article
Click here to view “How to Properly Care For Your Dog’s Teeth”

-by Susan Eskew

Susan Eskew is a freelance writer currently living in North Carolina.