Nancy Kerns: Hi! I am Nancy Kerns, Editor of The Whole Dog Journal. The most common question that people have about their dog's teeth is do I really have to brush his teeth?
The fact is, some dogs need brushing more than others. Some dogs go to their graves with clean white teeth and healthy gums with no effort put forth by their owners whatsoever, others start developing tartar at a young age. If your dog has tartar on his teeth, you need to start and make a habit of brushing.
The accumulation of plaque is not just unsightly; it's dangerous to your dog's health. Tartar build-up at and under the gum line enables the entrance and growth of bacteria under the gums.
Most dogs who have bad breath also have gingivitis; swollen, and inflamed bright-red or purple gums that bleed easily. Unchecked, these bacterial infections in the gums slowly destroy the ligament and bony structures that support the teeth. Because of the ample blood supply to the gums, infections in the mouth can also poison the dog systemically, potentially causing disease of the heart, kidneys, and liver.
If your dog's gums are noticeably more red at the gum line, and he has any visible tarter build up on his teeth, you need to have them cleaned by a veterinarian, and then maintain the health of his teeth and gums with regular brushing.
How often? The more you brush, the less frequently you'll have to pay for a veterinary cleaning. Whether you'd prefer to invest your time in patiently training your dog to enjoy having his teeth brushed or would prefer to invest in your veterinarian's time, is up to you.
Start out slow, and be patient. Don't try to brush all your dog's teeth on the first day. Use a circular motion, gently scrubbing plaque away from the gum line. Reward your dog richly and frequently with treats and praise.
The brushes that you wear on your fingertips don't work as well as brushes with softer bristles, and it's easier for your dog to accidentally bite down with these finger brushes. Look for a very soft bristled brush with a long handle, so you can reach the molars. For larger dogs, soft brushes meant for adult humans work fine. Baby toothbrushes work well for smaller dogs.
If your dog will tolerate it, electric toothbrushes work great. For some dogs however, these vibrating brushes are a deal breaker no matter what kind of treats you offer. Use a toothpaste designed for dogs. They come in meaty, not minty flavors, and they're free of fluoride which can be toxic to dogs. Look for products that contain antibacterial enzymes, which help discourage bacterial growth and resulting gingivitis.
Dip the brush in water frequently as you work to help rinse the plaque away from your dog's teeth, and to facilitate a thorough application of the antibacterial enzymes in the toothpaste. Remember, a clean mouth will help keep your dog healthier for life.