23 May Brushing Your Dog’s Teeth
Has your veterinarian ever urged you to brush your dog’s teeth? While it may seem like a daunting and potentially risky task, with the right tools, technique, training, and a positive mindset, it can be accomplished, ideally on a daily basis. When undertaking this important task for your pet’s health and longevity, always remember to make it a positive experience and prioritize safety. Brushing your dog’s teeth can be likened to fortifying a battered stronghold on a battlefield.
The optimal frequency for brushing your dog’s teeth is once a day. Studies conducted on dogs consistently show that daily brushing is more effective than brushing every other day or weekly. This is because plaque buildup occurs on the tooth surface every day. Once plaque forms, it hardens into tartar (calculus), which cannot be effectively treated with brushing alone, requiring ultrasonic scaling to remove. Untreated plaque can turn into tartar within 48-72 hours. Therefore, brushing every other day is the minimum frequency to maintain oral health in dogs.
Teaching and reinforcing this beneficial behavior in your dog is best done at a young age. It is crucial to avoid forcefulness when initially introducing toothbrushing. Start slowly by allowing your dog to lick the toothpaste from your finger. Gradually introduce the toothbrush into your dog’s mouth. Once your dog tolerates this simple action, begin adding brushing motions. Positive reinforcement is essential, so reward your dog for cooperating throughout the process.
When brushing, focus on the areas of the mouth where plaque accumulates the most. This means prioritizing the outer surfaces of the teeth (buccal surfaces). In well-behaved dogs, you can also brush the inner surfaces (lingual/palatal) of the teeth. Ideally, all surfaces of the tooth crown should be brushed. However, the back teeth (premolars and molars) are more challenging to access and visualize, and they tend to accumulate the heaviest plaque. These teeth are primarily used for chewing, so food and debris can gather in and around them. Additionally, the salivary ducts enter the oral cavity in these areas, contributing to increased plaque buildup.
There are various toothbrushing techniques derived from human dentistry that can be adapted for dogs. Two common methods are the Bass and Stillman techniques. To understand these techniques, it is important to grasp the concept of the gingival sulcus, which is the natural space between the tooth surface and the surrounding gum tissue (gingiva). This space cannot be thoroughly cleaned during anesthesia-free dental cleanings. Dental professionals use a small ruler called a periodontal probe to measure pocket depths in the sulcus.
The Bass technique involves angling the toothbrush and brushing beneath the gumline in the gingival sulcus. To do this, place the toothbrush parallel to the teeth with the bristles facing the gums. Then, tilt the brush at a 45-degree angle and gently move the bristles beneath the gumline. This technique is ideal for teeth with existing periodontitis and focuses on cleaning the cervical and interproximal areas where plaque and debris tend to accumulate. The cervical margin is the surface above the junction of the tooth crown and root.
The Stillman technique is similar to the Bass technique, but the bristles are placed partly over the cervical portion of the teeth and partly on the adjacent gingiva. Instead of entering the gingival sulcus, the bristles move along the attached gingiva and tooth surface. The brush is activated with short back-and-forth strokes, moving toward the crown in a coronal direction. This technique minimizes abrasive tissue damage and is suitable for areas where gentle cleansing is needed.
Unless instructed otherwise by your veterinarian, it is generally recommended to follow the principles of the Bass technique.
Summary of Steps for Brushing Your Dog’s Teeth:
- Close your pet’s mouth by placing your non-dominant hand in a “C-shape” around their muzzle. Lift the upper lip on the side you plan to brush.
- Use a soft-bristled toothbrush and dampen the bristles with water. Position the brush at the level where the tooth and gum meet. Angle the bristles at a 45-degree angle to brush along and beneath the gumline.
- Gently move the brush in circular motions with mild pressure on the outer surfaces of the teeth (buccal margin). Avoid excessive pressure to prevent gum irritation. It’s normal to experience mild bleeding during initial brushing sessions.
- Use dog-specific dentifrice or toothpaste. Apply a small amount of paste to your finger and rub it around the gum tissue and external surfaces of the teeth.
Note: In step 2, using water instead of flavored toothpaste will discourage your pet from chewing on the brush. Toothpaste is not essential for plaque removal; it’s the mechanical action of the bristles that matters. Once your pet is comfortable with brushing, you can introduce toothpaste, as long as they don’t attempt to eat the brush.
After brushing, remember to reward your dog with their favorite treat or show them extra love and attention. Aim to complete the process quickly and stop while your dog is still enjoying it.
-Dr. Eric Song, DVM, Resident in Dentistry and Oral Surgery