At-Home Dental Care for Pets

A brown Dachshund holding a yellow toothbrush in its mouth.

Whether you have a new puppy or an older pet who has just had a dental procedure, learning how to prevent plaque and tartar build-up with home dental care is the best way to prevent dental problems from occurring.

What happens if I don’t brush my pet’s teeth?

Toothbrushing can seem like quite a hassle, especially if your pet is resistant. However, it’s the best way to ensure your pet has healthy teeth. Not brushing your pet’s teeth can lead to a build-up of bacteria that attack the mouth, leading to gum disease (gingivitis) and eventually to dental disease (periodontitis).

How should I care for my pet’s teeth?

The care of your pet’s teeth starts at home. Whilst regular check-ups with your veterinarian are important to identify and treat problems, home care is important to try to prevent problems from starting. There are a number of things that you can do at home to look after your pet’s teeth, from tooth brushing to a change to their diet. We’re going to cover all these dental care tips for pets below.

Tooth Brushing for Pets

Just like in humans, brushing daily is the number one thing you can do to help reduce the risk of dental disease in your pets. Brushing physically removes plaque and tartar and keeps gums healthy. You can use a children’s toothbrush, a pet toothbrush, or a finger brush which looks a bit like a thimble. The mechanical action of the toothbrush is the most beneficial to the teeth and can be used alone or with pet-specific toothpaste. Adding a pet-specific toothpaste may be useful as some toothpastes contain ingredients to help break down the plaque chemically. Check the VOHC website for recommended products. Human toothpastes are not appropriate for pets as they contain too much fluoride as well as occasionally containing sweeteners and other ingredients that can be poisonous to pets.

It’s a good idea to build your pet up to tooth brushing slowly by starting with letting them lick the toothpaste from the brush. Once they look forward to this with anticipation, you can start putting the brush in their mouth, so they get used to the sensation. Eventually, you then can start gently brushing their teeth. When brushing, try and aim for the outside surfaces of the biggest teeth, as this will be where plaque is most likely- and luckily these are the easiest targets to hit! Be gentle and reward your pet after each session with a treat or game. Most pets can learn to tolerate this, with practice.

Dental Diet

It’s a popular myth that dry dog or cat food will help to clean teeth, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Some diets play a role in dental health, but not all. A dental-specific diet (usually available as a prescription from your veterinarian) can help by breaking up in a way that cleans the teeth or by having a particular texture that encourages chewing. These diets can also contain ingredients to slow the formation of tartar. The list on the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) website is a good resource for scientifically-proven diets. For best effect, these often need to be fed as the only diet and you should take care if your pet is on a special diet for another reason, as switching them over may not be a good idea. Your veterinary team can discuss diet choice with you.

Dental Chews

Sensible treats and chews can also help to keep teeth clean, especially for pets that will not tolerate toothbrushing. Just take care that the chews aren’t too hard, and that they can’t be swallowed whole and cause a blockage. Purpose-designed firm rubber chews are usually best, and there are also some chews and treats designed to help teeth. Again, the VOHC website is a great resource for finding the best clinically-proven dental treat for your pet.

Food and water additives

There are products available that go in food or water that are designed to act in a similar way to mouthwash in humans – killing off the bacteria that cause plaque and bad smell. There are liquids to add to water and powders to add to food. Unlike Listerine and other mouthwash products, these are safe for pets- and can be swallowed. The VOHC website has a list of these products.

Other dental care products for pets

New products are coming onto the market all the time to help to prevent dental disease in pets. One option is antiseptic sticky gel, which can be applied directly to teeth without brushing. The evidence for these products suggests they are not as good as brushing and toothpaste, but if your pet will not tolerate brushing then these are a useful alternative. Again, use the VOHC website to find a good product.

When should you start brushing a dog or cat’s teeth? Is it too late?

The earlier you can teach your pet that toothbrushing is fun, the more likely they are to accept it as part of their routine. Whilst puppies and kittens don’t normally need their teeth brushed, you should practice by letting them lick the toothpaste from the brush and moving the toothbrush in their mouths. At around 4 months old, their teeth will fall out- it’s likely that they will have bleeding gums and discomfort at this time, so it’s ok to stop brushing for a few weeks. Once all of their adult teeth have grown in you can start the dental care routine again.

Adult dogs and cats can successfully be taught to accept toothbrushing, but it will usually be a little harder. Remember to take each step at a time and reward them for good behavior. It is never too late to teach your pet to allow toothbrushing. However, when the teeth are already damaged their mouths may be painful- they may need to have a dental procedure before you can start toothbrushing with them.

It is worth understanding that periodontitis is irreversible, and once the teeth reach the ‘point of no return’ then no amount of toothbrushing will reattach them. However, tooth brushing is still a good idea for the other teeth and may allow you to save some of your pet’s teeth.

Frequently Asked Questions about Dental Care for Pets

How can I clean my pet’s teeth naturally?

You don’t have to use toothpaste on your pet’s toothbrush- they’ll still get lots of benefit from the brushing action without it. A toothbrush with a little water on it is the most natural way to clean your pet’s teeth.

Can I use baking soda to clean my pet’s teeth?

We do not recommend using baking soda to clean your pet’s teeth. Baking soda is damaging to the enamel of the teeth, leading to micro-abrasions that make it easier for bacteria to stick to the teeth. If your pet’s teeth are stained, pet toothpaste may help, or you can talk to your vet about a scale and polish to clean them up.

Can I clean my pet’s teeth with peroxide?

Although peroxide has been suggested for use in humans, it has to be at a particular concentration and exposure time, and still carries the risk of damage to the tongue and gums. It is not recommended to brush your pet’s teeth with peroxide, it can be extremely damaging. In addition, peroxide used in humans is usually spit out- but our pets will swallow it, further damaging the gullet and stomach, and possibly causing vomiting.

Can I brush my pet’s teeth with coconut oil?

It is the action of brushing the teeth, loosening the bacteria and allowing them to be swallowed, that has the most benefit. If you do choose to put something on the brush, choose pet toothpaste. Coconut oil has no proven benefits over pet toothpaste and runs the risk of causing pancreatitis, a painful condition.

How do I freshen my pet’s breath?

There are many breath-freshening products on the market for pets, but many of them just disguise the smell of your pet’s breath. For the freshest breath, getting to the bottom of the smell and treating the gum disease or tooth decay is a much safer bet. You can then start clinically proven home care, such as toothbrushing, at home to keep their breath smelling sweet.

Why is my pet’s breath stinky?

Smelly breath can occur for a number of reasons, including gum disease, tooth decay, and tooth root abscesses. Wounds and foreign bodies in the soft tissues of the mouth can also cause smelly breath. If your pet’s breath is smelly, visiting the vet for a check-up is the first step- they can talk to you about home care if there’s nothing that needs treating.

Can I put Listerine in my pet’s water?

You shouldn’t put Listerine or similar mouthwash products in your pet’s water, because they can contain ingredients that are toxic to pets. However, there are dental care additives available for your pet’s water that are a suitable alternative.