10 min

How To Brush Your Pet's Teeth

Brushing your pet's teeth is an important part of their daily routine that can add years to their life. Learn how to brush your dog or cat's teeth the right way.

Dr. Buck Drummond, DVM

Updated January 19, 2023 • Published January 19, 2023

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How To Brush Your Pet's Teeth

So you’ve decided to brush your pet’s teeth. That’s a great idea! Clean teeth don’t just look better. Clean teeth mean your pet’s breath will be better.

Brushing can prevent the oral pain of decaying teeth and will guard your pet against health problems related to chronic inflammation and infection in their mouth. Gum tissue absorbs bacteria and inflammatory factors from bad teeth directly into the bloodstream which can damage their heart and kidneys.

When it comes to how to brush your pet's teeth, it can be a little tricky if you don't know the right steps. Let's discuss the right method for brushing your dog or cat's teeth so you can become a pro and both you and your pet can enjoy those pearly whites.

When should I start brushing my pet's teeth?

Start young! Puppies and kittens are born with teeth (fun fact: they don’t go through the same painful ‘teething’ process that human babies do, because that happens when a toothless human baby’s teeth cut through their gums for the first time). These baby teeth are also called ‘deciduous’ teeth because they will be shed like the leaves of deciduous trees—or sometimes called ‘milk’ teeth—because they are present during nursing. Baby teeth get pushed out by the adult (‘permanent’) teeth that develop directly underneath them by about 5-6 months of age. 

While baby teeth won’t generally be around long enough to need brushing, getting your pet used to the idea of brushing is an important training step. When they are young, you can start handling their toes in preparation for nail trimming, playing with their ears in preparation for ear cleanings, and use your fingers to rub on their teeth in preparation for brushing.

If your dog or cat already has adult teeth, you should still think of starting with an initial training stage. They may not understand what you are trying to do at first and will need time to get used to it. You don’t want to surprise them with fingers in their mouth and risk getting bitten by accident! When your pet is calm, maybe even drowsy, with their head in your lap and you are petting them around the face, start by gently rubbing their teeth on the outside of their lips. If that doesn’t disturb them, then you can try slipping a finger under the lip and touching the teeth themselves. Don’t pry their jaws open, just rub on the outside surfaces of their teeth. If they resist, stop and try again another time. Never fight or wrestle with a dog or cat to get access to their mouth—you’re just training them to resist!

If your pet is full grown, and you haven’t tried brushing their teeth before, realize that they may already have sensitive spots in their mouth, so start slow, be gentle, always watching how they are reacting to you. 

Even younger adults may have broken parts of their teeth through over-enthusiastic chewing or may have developed localized infections in their gums that can be painful. Older pets, of course, are more likely to have developed more wide-spread gum problems (‘gingivitis’) or places where the gum tissue has receded, exposing more sensitive tissue.

Generally, small dogs have more of a tendency to bad teeth than big dogs. Certain breeds, like yorkies and poodles for example, also have more of a predisposition to dental problems, suggesting that genetics can play a role in the development of bad teeth even despite your best efforts.

Preventing dental problems in pets

Eating food leads to dental plaque—this is a sticky film that coats the teeth in bacteria. Plaque is soft in the mouth for about two days before it forms into dental ‘tartar,’ which is that tan or brown-colored, cement-like substance that can’t be brushed away. Tartar first forms at the gum line on the exposed surfaces of the teeth, and this irritation can cause the gum to recede, slowly exposing parts of the teeth that shouldn’t be exposed, and over time, weaken the roots that hold the teeth in place, like digging dirt away from the base of a fence post. 

Your pet uses those pointy fang teeth (the ‘canine’ teeth) to pick up food, then uses the largest teeth in back (the ‘molars’) to chew food before swallowing. The two most common places that tartar will form is along the gum line of the fangs and those big upper molars (also called ‘carnasal’ teeth). Concentrate on these areas when brushing.

The goal of brushing is to remove plaque before it turns into tartar, which makes daily brushing the best plan. Start by just using the tip of your finger (or a cotton swab) to wipe away old food. In fact, if you do just that every day, you’re already doing great things for your pet. Try developing a kind of ‘goodnight’ routine, where you give your pet a little affection before bed, then just add sticking your fingers in there and rubbing the base of the fangs and the carnasals—no special equipment or tooth paste required. How easy is that? 

If your pet is especially cooperative and you want to go next level, there are toothbrushes that fit over the end of your finger and edible pet toothpastes as well. Don’t use baking soda or human tooth paste that isn’t meant to be swallowed! Remember, you really only need to concentrate on the outside surfaces of your pet’s teeth, because their tongue will do a pretty good job of removing any food from the inside surfaces.

One important note: If your pet’s teeth are already loose, brushing will not help and will only cause them pain.

How to brush your pet's teeth:

  1. Try using your finger to touch their teeth first to gauge sensitivity

  2. If they're okay with that, try letting them taste the toothpaste

  3. Put toothpaste on your finger or a toothbrush and gently brush the front teeth in small circles up to the gum line

  4. As they get more comfortable with what you're doing, gradually move towards the back teeth with the same gentle circular motion

  5. Remember to give them frequent breaks and lots of praise!

What if my pet hates it when I brush their teeth?

So your pet wants nothing to do with your efforts to brush their teeth? If your pet’s mouth is too painful, or if you can see that the teeth are clearly diseased, trying to brush might cause more inflammation and pain, so you should consult a vet for advice. Antibiotics and other medications may help to clear up infection, or your pet may need to have a formal dental cleaning before your can start brushing at home.

If it's more of a cooperation problem, you can talk to your vet about alternatives like dental chews and water additives (but remember, these things will be ingested like food items, so may have the potential to upset your pet’s digestion).

If you have any questions about how to brush your dog or cat's teeth, the Vet Pros at Pawp are here to help 24/7.

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