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Real talk. Raising dogs isn’t always fun and games. Sometimes when caring for our pups, we have to do things that aren’t always easy or pleasant—like brushing their teeth. But does all the effort really pay off? Are there easier workarounds? It’s not like wild dogs and wolves are out on the streets or in the forest brushing their teeth, so do we really need to brush our dog’s teeth at home?
To find out, we interview Dr. Shannon Barrett, Charleston-based house-call veterinarian and owner of Downward Paws. With her help, we break down this tricky but important health practice—answering everything from “do I need to brush my dog’s teeth?” to “how often should I brush?” and all the questions in between!
Do You Really Need To Brush Your Dog’s Teeth?
Yes, Dr. Barrett confirms that we do need to brush our dogs’ teeth as an important part of caring for them. It removes plaque and tartar buildup, which can develop into dental disease if left untreated—and that can have a serious impact on a dog’s health and longevity.
For those wondering how wild dogs and wolves get away without toothbrushing, she says that by domesticating our pets, we’ve also changed the way they live. Wild animals like wolves don’t live as long. And they do, in fact, have dental problems and oral diseases that go untreated, which shorten their lifespan.
As pup parents, we have the advantage of helping prevent pain or infection in our dogs’ mouths with a regular brushing routine. “Our dogs’ teeth are very similar to ours; therefore, their dental care routine should also be similar,” Dr. Barrett says.
Just like our toothbrushes, dog toothbrushes work by breaking up plaque, aka the sticky substance that accumulates in your dog’s mouth from food particles and saliva.
“Your dog’s mouth contains bacteria that produce a film. The goal of the toothbrush is to disturb the bacteria and this film,” Dr. Barrett says. “When brushing, you want to use a gentle sweeping motion to disrupt the bacteria in their mouths.”
But not all dog toothbrushes are created equal. When picking out a toothbrush for your pup, Dr. Barrett advises finding one with soft, nylon bristles that are approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) or recommended by a veterinarian. “The most effective toothbrush is the same type we use, one with bristles that get between all the crevices around the gums,” she says.
And the dog toothbrushes that slide on your finger? While they’re okay for pups who really hate brushing or those just getting into a routine, Dr. Barrett says they’re not the most efficient option. “If your child were to come home from the dentist with a finger toothbrush covered in rubber bumps, would this seem like an effective toothbrush to you? Would you use it on your teeth? Hopefully not,” she says.
Choosing a Toothbrush for Your Dog
Dogs toothbrushes come in different shapes and sizes, so you’ll want to find one that fits your dog’s particular size and brushing style.
A dual-ended toothbrush is a great option for dogs getting used to brushing and for small-, medium-, and large-breed pups. The Vetoquinol Enzadent Dual-Ended Dog Toothbrush, for example, contains two different sized heads on each end with soft bristles.
Flat but slightly angled to more effectively hit your dog’s chompers, the long handle helps to reach back teeth, while the two brush head sizes can accommodate different size breeds. For very small and toy breeds, though, it may be best to choose a brush more specifically designed for their mouths.
Pet parents who need to get in and out quickly may want to consider a triple-headed brush, like this brush by Vet’s Best. Part of a dental kit that also includes a veterinarian-formulated toothpaste, the toothbrush is just like it sounds—it fits around the three sides of your dog’s teeth, covering the top and sides with soft bristles so you get three angles simultaneously.
Though it may not be as thorough as the more standard brush above, it can be a good choice for dogs who don’t easily tolerate brushing. This brush, while good for medium and large breeds, likely will not fit small and toy breeds.
For our tinier friends, a brush with a smaller head is the way to go, like this Virbac C.E.T toothbrush, specifically designed for small mouths. Specializing in animal dental health for 25 years, this brand is veterinarian recommended. The toothbrush is a standard design with a flat, slightly reverse-angled brush, complete with soft bristles. Bonus? It also works for cats!
And a friendly reminder: Don’t forget about toothpaste. Incorporating it with these brushes not only helps to further the health of your dog’s mouth but can also make the process easier, as dog toothpaste tends to come in appealing flavors like chicken.
What the Experts Say About Dog Toothbrushes
Not only does Dr. Barrett believe brushing your dog’s teeth is a mandatory part of their overall healthcare, but she also advises brushing daily. “If you’re only brushing your dog’s teeth once a week, you’re allowing film to build up,” she says. “It will become thicker and harder to penetrate. As plaque builds up, it becomes tartar.”
Dr. Barrett says that the more the tartar accumulates, the harder it is to remove it with a toothbrush, which could ultimately lead to gum disease and dental decay. “At this stage, your dog will need a professional dental cleaning requiring sedation,” she says.
In order to get the most out of your brushing, Dr. Barrett suggests the following steps recommended by the VOHC:
- Brush each tooth, starting in the back of the mouth
- Use a 45-degree angle (if your flat brush head isn’t already angled)
- Make three back-and-forth horizontal strokes, then one vertical stroke from gum to tip
- You can also divide the mouth into quadrants (upper right, lower right, upper left, lower left) and do them separately
Can I Just Use Dental Chews?
Some dog parents who have trouble with brushing turn to dental chews, but Dr. Barrett generally doesn’t recommend them for teeth cleaning, since many dogs eat them too quickly for them to really be effective.
“The premise behind dental chews is that they are to be chewed very slowly, which will then gently massage the gums and teeth—thus helping with dental health,” she says. “However, most of these chews are very high in calories, which is why dogs love them so much—it’s also why they eat them so quickly. It’s like trying to brush your teeth with a Triscuit.”
What can be a little more helpful than a dental chew is a dental toy—a nubbly rubber ring or stick that can be lightly smeared with dog toothpaste to encourage your pup to gnaw on it and dislodge plaque in hard-to-reach areas at the back of the mouth. It’s not as good as a full brushing, but it’s an intermediate step—especially if you’re still working out some of the kinks in your process.
Do Dental Wipes Work?
For the most part, yes. Dr. Barrett says that a good-quality dental wipe is more effective than dental chews if brushing is impossible. “You can place these on the end of your finger and gently massage your dog’s gumline and individual teeth,” she says. “The goal with these wipes is to use gentle pressure because you are transferring the ingredients from the wipe onto your dog’s teeth.”
Just be sure to avoid rubbing too hard, as it can cause irritation. The goal is to use the wipes in the same way you would with a toothbrush: in other words, daily and preferably after the final meal of the day. Remember, though, that a wipe will not be as effective as brushing, but it’s the best alternative for keeping your dog’s teeth and mouth healthy when brushing is not an option.
Do I Need to Brush My Dog’s Teeth? Final Verdict
Yes! It’s an important part of your dog’s health routine to brush their teeth—preferably every day for ultimate results. The best option for cleaning your dog’s mouth is to use a toothbrush with a handle and soft bristles—to break up bacteria without causing irritation—in conjunction with plaque and tartar-fighting dog toothpaste (do not use human toothpaste). If your dog is just not having the toothbrush, a high-quality dental wipe is a good plan B.
“The earlier you start dental care in your pet, the better,” says Dr. Barrett, who tells all her new dog guardians, especially ones who bring home a puppy, to to start looking in their mouths. She suggests gently lifting up the puppy’s lips to examine their teeth, which familiarizes dog parents with their pup’s mouth while getting the dogs used to having the inside of their mouths touched.
From there, Dr. Barrett says to let your dog lick a small amount of toothpaste off your finger. Then if they like it, place a small amount on your finger as you examine their teeth. That way, it’s a positive experience for both you and your pup.
You can slowly start adding in the toothbrush, letting them lick a small amount of toothpaste off and using it on the sides of their teeth. Continue to brush more and more until your dog becomes comfortable. Remember that it’s a process and takes patience—which will be well worth it in the long run.
“Just as we provide our pets with amenities such as food and shelter, we also need to take care of their medical needs,” says Dr. Barrett. “This includes dental care [that] assures them a good quality of life for years to come.”
How We Chose Our Dog Toothbrushes
The dog toothbrushes featured here were selected based on a combination of our own hands-on testing, a comprehensive look at customer reviews across a wide variety of retail platforms, and interviews with veterinary experts. In our toothbrush selections, we prioritized products that were both effective and highly recommended. We’re also guided by the experience of living and playing alongside our own much-loved and strongly opinionated pets, who are never stingy with their feedback.