From daily tooth brushing to an annual dental cleaning, these tips can help you care for your dog’s dental health throughout his lifetime.

By Teresa K. Traverse
August 24, 2020
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Cleaning your dog’s teeth is a key part of caring for your pet. But dental care can often be overlooked until there’s some kind of a problem, like a sore tooth or bleeding from the mouth. Just like with any health concern, though, it’s better to be proactive than reactive.

“Having a dental procedure done is one of the best preventative care steps you could take for your pet,” says Katie E. Kling, DVM, DAVDC, a clinical assistant professor at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. “We can improve our pets’ quality of life by helping them have more comfortable, better functioning mouths that are healthier.”

How to Keep Your Dog’s Teeth Clean

Ideally, Kling says, pet owners should aim to brush their dog’s teeth daily, or every other day. But Kling admits this isn’t the norm.

“The very best way to keep your pet’s teeth clean is to brush them daily, which is usually not what people want to hear. And it's something that we as pet owners, most of us have a hard time doing consistently,” Kling says.

In addition to regular teeth brushing, an annual professional teeth cleaning under anesthesia is the best way to clean the plaque that is under the gumline. Dogs who are high-risk for periodontal disease—like toy breeds or those with shorter noses (known as brachycephalic breeds)—should make a professional dental exam part of their annual routine, since dogs with smaller mouths are prone to dental disease due to teeth crowding.

“If you have one of those higher-risk dogs, that's going to be something that needs to be on your radar,” Kling says.

Every year, your vet should perform an oral exam to determine if a professional teeth cleaning is recommended.

What Happens During a Professional Teeth Cleaning

If it’s determined that your pup needs a professional dental cleaning, you can expect your vet to perform a full physical exam and take a blood sample beforehand, in order to make sure your dog is healthy enough to undergo anesthesia safely. After the vet determines the general health of your dog, he’ll be put under general anesthesia, which helps to minimize the stress of the cleaning on the dog. 

Kling explains that general anesthesia is needed because a breathing tube is put down the dog’s trachea. “We want to protect the airway so that there's not potentially debris or water going into the airway. So that's why it's safest to do this under a light plane [or “stage”] of anesthesia,” Kling says.

Another reason your pup needs to be put under is that dogs tend to have more plaque on their teeth since they aren’t brushing daily and receiving professional teeth cleanings like their human owners do.

“Since there is frequently more plaque and calculus [tartar] than we might have, ultrasonic scaling and polishing is faster than hand scaling, but ultrasonic scaling is water-cooled. And we need to prevent the water, plaque, and calculus from going in the airway. A breathing tube prevents that from happening,” Kling says.

Next, your vet will take X-rays of your dog’s mouth to gain a closer look at the teeth, and perform a tooth-by-tooth exam. 

During the cleaning, the vet will check for cavities, non-vital teeth (meaning any teeth that no longer have a blood supply), and periodontal disease. While your pet is under anesthesia, the vet will also extract any teeth that need to be removed to help prevent pain or infection. If a tooth needs to be extracted, the vet will use absorbable sutures to stitch up the site. A second X-ray is performed to ensure your dog’s mouth looks healthy before your pup wakes up and goes home. The procedure could last anywhere from 45 minutes to four hours, depending on the kind of work that may need to be done.

If no extractions were performed, you can expect your dog to act groggy or drowsy for about 12 hours or so. But if multiple extractions were performed, the vet will perform a nerve block so your dog doesn’t feel as much pain post-cleaning, and you may also need to give your dog pain killers for a few days following the procedure. Since your pup’s teeth and gums will be sensitive, it’s possible you’ll be instructed to feed him soft food or kibble soaked with water for seven to 14 days until his mouth is healed.

Signs Your Dog Might Be Having Dental Issues

Not sure if your dog needs a professional dental cleaning? There are a few signs that could mean your pup is experiencing dental health problems that require your vet’s attention. If your dog is less likely to play with toys, is dropping food, has red or bleeding gums, brown tartar on teeth, bad breath, or doesn’t want to crunch his food, it’s time to call the vet. Although Kling says some dogs don’t show any signs of dental trouble but still may have issues with their teeth.

“Frequently, owners will report no signs at all even when we find advanced dental disease with an oral exam and X-rays,” Kling says. “Dogs don’t have a good way of communicating that to us.” 

How to Brush Your Dog’s Teeth

If brushing your dog’s teeth isn’t already a regular part of your daily routine, you’ll certainly want to start an at-home habit after a dental health procedure. Here’s how to get started:

Step 1: Make It Fun. 

Purchase a dog-specific toothpaste that will taste good to your pup. Kling says trying to bribe them in other ways—like through toys or treats—might not be as effective as the toothpaste itself. “We want this to be a positive, lasting experience,” she says, “not a negative thing.”

Step 2: Start Gradually. 

Let your dog sniff the toothpaste first. Then, let him lick it off the toothbrush. If he’s not interested, or if he’s apprehensive, you can try linking tooth brushing with a positive activity he loves, like going for a walk or a car ride. That way, the dog knows he’ll get to do something fun after you to brush his teeth. 

Step 3: Brush!

When it comes to technique, the mechanical action of breaking up the plaque on the teeth is key. Focus on the outside or the cheek-side of the teeth since that’s where most periodontal disease progresses. Kling says to try running your toothbrush or finger brush in between the teeth and your dog’s cheek. Aim for two to three strokes on the right side, left side, and on the front of the mouth. “That's when you'll have the best success, and where it matters most,” she adds. 

Do Dog Teeth Cleaning Treats Work?

You’ve probably spotted dog teeth cleaning treats on store shelves—and for good reason. “Tooth brushing is not very glamorous … or fun. Most pets don't like it,” Kling says. And since every pet loves treats (and we humans love to give them!) that sentiment creates a huge market for items like treats that promise cleaner teeth or fresher breath.

If you’re considering giving your dog teeth-cleaning treats, Kling says you’ll want to look for the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval, an independent group that examines tests on treats to prove that they work.“Those are the ones that we have evidence to say that they should help with dental disease,” Kling says.

These treats typically work in one of two ways. The first way is more mechanical: the dog chews the treat and the chewing action breaks up the plaque and scrapes the teeth. The second way is by binding up the minerals that come from your dog’s saliva or plaque. If you don’t brush your dog’s teeth for a while, the minerals on their teeth will harden, and plaque turns into tartar. The dog treats help prevent plaque from becoming tartar (or the brown substance you might spot on your dog’s teeth). 

Toys That Clean Dog’s Teeth

There are also toys that can help break up plaque as your pet chews on them. Kling says there are other benefits to chew toys, too. “Chewing is definitely something that we want to encourage in dogs,” she says. “That's a natural habit for them—and it's a good energy outlet.”

When chew-sing a toy for your pup to chew on for dental health, Kling says you don’t want to buy a toy that’s too hard, like natural or nylon bones that could potentially crack your dog’s teeth. A dense rubber bone is safest. Kling says a good rule of thumb is that you should be able to indent the toy with your nail to ensure it’s the right level of firmness to clean your dog’s teeth without causing damage.

How Much Does Dog Dental Cleaning Cost? 

If treats, brushing, and chew toys don’t do the trick and you end up needing to take your pup to a professional, know that costs of a dog dental cleaning can vary widely due to several factors. If your vet has to perform multiple teeth extractions or removals, you can expect to pay more due to the increase in time to complete the procedure. And if anesthesia is used, you can expect to pay between $500–$1,000 alone for that part of the procedure. 

Before you balk at the price tag, keep in mind the type of care your pet will be in during the procedure. “Safe anesthesia is expensive,” Kling says, primarily due to the monitoring the pet receives when they’re under. In situations like a dental cleaning when anesthesia is used, vets take the same safety precautions for pets that are taken in human care—and just like your doctor takes anesthesia seriously, so will your vet. 

She advises pet owners to ask questions ahead of time, like whether there will be someone dedicated to monitoring your pet's anesthesia during the process. If costs seem like they're too low or too good to be true, she says it’s possible that level of monitoring will be missing from the procedure.

Another factor that can influence the cost of teeth cleaning for dogs is location. If you live in a big metropolitan city, expect to shell out more than you would in a more rural area. Kling tells us that in her city a few hours south of Chicago, an average teeth cleaning under general anesthesia with no extractions would cost about $600. But if the cleaning involves multiple extractions, Kling says the cleaning might cost anywhere from $800 to $1,500.