5 science-backed reasons you should be brushing your dog's teeth
The case for diving into doggy breath — plus tips for caring for your canine's canines
Plenty of walks, full food bowls, copious coat-brushing sessions, the odd trip to the salon and an occasional cookie — most dog owners have a solid sense of their pup's basic needs. Yet what's often overlooked is doggy dental hygiene, even though plenty of experts think it should sit much higher on the healthy hound checklist.
Board-certified veterinary dentist Dr Fraser Hale asserts that canine genetics play a major role in the prevalence of serious periodontal diseases in dogs but, just like humans, regular trips to the dentist from an early age can help assuage that. Veterinary removal of misshapen or crowded teeth can have a massive impact on oral health – after that, the best course of action is pretty much the same as it is for us: strict adherence to a daily brushing routine. Unless your dog is particularly gifted, they're likely going to need some help from their human in this arena.
Should you remain unsold on the value of making time for your dog's daily oral care, here are some science-backed reasons for you and your dog to start having home dental dates:
Chew treats are useful as cleaning agents but just can't do the whole job
While tough chew toys made of rubber or rawhide and dry, crunchy treats can definitely benefit by virtue of their tooth-scraping properties, they simply can't hit all the sullied spots in your dog's mouth. Dr. Santiago Peralta, DVM and specialist in oral surgery at Cornell University explains that no matter how much time your dog spends laying into a chew toy, some tough-to-reach surfaces are destined to remain untouched, letting plaque build up. Plus, no chew toy can ever hope to manage pernicious plaque buildup under gum lines the way a bristly toothbrush can.
Your dog may already have some kind of periodontal issue, especially if they're older and on the small side
One study from the University of Pennsylvania found that an incredible 85% of puppers age four years or older had some kind of periodontal disease. Those in the highest risk category? Little dogs with little teeth. The study is quite clear: "Small dogs are particularly at risk. Prevention by retarding accumulation of plaque is the key concept." Again, dry chew treats can help with plaque build up, but daily brushing is suggested by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA).
An absence of oral care can lead to discomfort, loss of teeth, bone and soft tissue or worse
The American Veterinary Dental College confirms that advanced periodontal diseases like gingivitis and periodontitis have unhappy and painful symptoms like severe gum inflammation and the erosion of both hard and soft tissues surrounding your dog's teeth. If they're unusually head shy or having trouble chewing, those could be signs that your pup requires better oral care. Left untreated, decidedly unpleasant things like holes in the hard palate and serious bone infection (aka osteomyelitis) can grant mouth bacteria access to the bloodstream and your little buddy's entire body.
A good brushing can do wonders for their little heart
A 2009 study out of Purdue University supported other studies to highlight the prevalence of oral cavity diseases in dogs (newer findings here showed a bit of improvement – 75% of dogs experienced an oral health issue by the age of three). More crucially though, the study showed significant correlations between canine gum diseases and life-threatening heart issues. The worse the state of dog oral health, the higher of the risk of heart health. Though the precise causal links remain somewhat nebulous, it seems likely that here too bacterial contamination finding a foothold in your dog's mouth can eventually make its way to their cardiac tissue. Side note: that holds true in humans too, so do mind your own teeth as well if you're fond of a healthy ticker.
It'll only take about seven minutes, once you and your dog get comfy with the dental regimen
Research from the Okayama University Graduate School of Medicine and Dentistry has shown that in dogs with gingivitis, optimal plaque removal that promotes gum healing was achieved with gentle brushing for no longer than 10 seconds per tooth. Adult dogs have 42 teeth (humans top out at 32, if tooth trivia tickles your fancy), so that means you can get in and out on a healthy scrubbing sesh in about seven minutes.
You don't have to be a pro to tackle your dog's daily dental needs — but it does take a little finesse. These tips from the CVMA can get you started:
Step 1: Start slow, be gentle and definitely have a preferred treat handy. Seeing as this is likely new territory for both pet and owner, you'll want to tread lightly, and any signs of aggression should be headed as a sign to back off. Levels of temperament and docility will factor in. Still, without restraining your pet, begin with some soft muzzle scratches and move your way into a lift lip (no brushing yet) that exposes the teeth for about 30 seconds. Toss in a treat as a reward for tolerating your fingers immediately.
Step 2: Repeat the process, but this time gently run your fingers over your dog's teeth for 20 to 30 seconds. Praise and payoff will go a long way in creating trust and making this a potentially enjoyable routine for both of you, so incorporate the reward into the action here. The CVMA suggests including a little fish or beef juice (our whatever animal juice your dog likes best) right on your finger. Again, finish with that treat — and lots of love — so that this becomes something of a game.
Step 3: Introduce a dog toothpaste and toothbrush (although a clean nylon can serve here too) and just let your dog lick away — still no brushing. Important note: DO NOT use human toothpaste. Substances like fluoride which find their way into many toothpaste brands are toxic to animals. The CVMA is adamant that pet owners seek out VOHC approved toothpaste only. Too many pet products on the market are devoid of a VOHC rating and some of the ingredients used aren't doing dogs any favours.
Step 4: Brush away! Get each tooth for about 10 to 20 seconds on both sides, then make sure your dog gets another treat and plenty of celebratory praise after the whole ordeal. Repeat home dental care daily and it should become no different than going for a walk or throwing the ball around.
If your animal isn't the type to sit still easily, try a maiden voyage into dental care after some serious outdoor play time or a lengthy walk has worn them down a bit. Your pupper will thank you with fewer vet bills in the long run. One final caveat: do consider that while it can be mitigated to some extent with brushing, there is currently no completely reliable cure for doggy breath.
Marc Beaulieu is a Montreal writer, producer, performer, professional host and mental health advocate whose one true love is weird news.