Successful Toothbrushing: Training for Happy Dental Care

Why does my pet need dental care at home?

Oral hygiene is as important for our pets as for us. Fortunately, dental caries (cavities) are relatively rare in dogs and cats. But dogs and cats can develop dental calculi, or tartar on their teeth, and they are also susceptible to periodontal disease.

Plaque normally forms on teeth every day, but if it is not removed within 48 hours, it begins to harden into tartar that cannot be brushed away but must be professionally scraped. In addition, bacteria in the mouth can contribute to infections in other organs such as the heart and kidneys.

Brushing your pet’s teeth daily will not only prevent tartar formation but also give you a chance to detect potentially serious changes in your pet’s health. If your pet’s gums bleed more than usual during brushing, or if you notice an unpleasant odor, you can alert your veterinarian immediately.

Most pets also benefit from a professional cleaning at least once every year. Your veterinarian will help you decide the best strategy for keeping your pet’s teeth and gums healthy.

How do I brush my pet’s teeth?

Your veterinary team can demonstrate proper brushing techniques for your pet. In most cases, it is sufficient to brush the outer edges of the teeth - the areas that are relatively easy to reach. It is usually not necessary to brush the inner margins of the teeth because that area does not accumulate as much plaque. Ask your veterinarian, as there are some exceptions.

Your veterinarian can also supply you with the proper cleaning supplies. All you need is:

  • A soft toothbrush. There are special brushes designed for pets. These typically have small tips and long handles to make brushing more effective. If the handle seems too bulky for you, an alternative is to use a soft fingertip brush.
  • Palatable pet toothpaste. Do not use toothpaste designed for humans as it may contain ingredients that are not safe for pets.
  • Treats. When you begin training, keep some delicious treats on hand. Choose a treat that your pet does not need to chew but can lick easily, such as a dab of cream cheese or yogurt.

To train your pet to tolerate teeth brushing, you will use desensitization and counterconditioning: breaking down the process into a series of tiny steps and pairing each step with something pleasant. Each step should be easily accepted; if your pet becomes concerned, take a break and start with an easier step next time.

Step 1: Get comfortable

Start your training by finding a location and position that is comfortable for you and your pet. For a small pet, you may create a handling station such as a low table with a towel for traction. Larger dogs can learn to stand with their front paws on a low platform, such as a step stool.

Step 2: Reward for standing still

Before you get out the dental equipment, practice rewarding your pet at the station. For this part of training, you can use any favored treats. Reward your pet for holding steady for a few seconds and increase the time every day, until your pet will stand steady for up to two minutes - long enough for a full brushing once training has been completed.

It can also be helpful to train your pet to put their chin on the palm of your hand. This can allow you to steady your pet’s head while you insert the toothbrush. In any case, before you introduce the brush, it is important to find a position that will be comfortable for you and your pet. Soon your pet will eagerly hop onto the station for the treats.

Step 3: Introduce the toothbrush

Put a dab of lickable treat onto the toothbrush. Let your pet lick the treat and repeat several times. Next, put the toothbrush onto your pet’s front teeth. There’s no need to pry your pet’s mouth open - just slide the brush in for a moment, remove it, and let your pet lick their gums to taste the treat.

Step 4: Introduce the toothpaste

Next, put a dab of toothpaste onto the brush and slide the brush into your pet’s mouth - not too far back. You want your pet to be comfortable. Let her lick and swallow. Follow with some lickable treats that you feed her from a dish or from your hand.

Step 5: Brush the teeth

Now you are ready to dab the toothpaste and give a gentle brush, just for a second or two. Remove the brush, feed some treats, and if your pet is relaxed and having fun, you may repeat and do another short brushing.

Keep the sessions short and gradually increase the time spent brushing versus treating. A typical session might only be 30 seconds to start.

Tips for Success

Never force your pet’s mouth open. Just slide the toothbrush along the edges and brush the cheek side of the teeth. Forcibly opening a pet’s mouth will cause them to resist and possibly fear toothbrushing.

Remember – your pet gets to set the pace! Watch for any signs of stress. These signs mean your pet is asking you to slow down:

  • Moving their head away
  • Holding their lips tight
  • Exhibiting dilated pupils
  • Holding ears back (cats)
  • Folding ears to the side or back
  • Tucking their tail tightly (dogs) or twitching their tail (cats)
  • Leaning away, looking away, or attempting to flee
  • Retreating when they see the toothbrush in your hand
  • Becoming tense or frozen in place
  • Trembling
  • Vocalizing (whine, growl, bark, hiss)
  • Snarling, swatting, snapping, or biting

The training process can take a few minutes for some pets and a few months for others. If you're not making progress after a few weeks, seek professional guidance from a behavior consultant or trainer skilled in teaching toothbrushing.