Do I REALLY Need to Brush my Dog's Teeth?

Do you need to brush your own teeth? Yes- unless you want the sticky biofilm that is plaque forming a nasty fuzz over your teeth, causing odor (halitosis!) and laying the groundwork for infection. A biofilm like plaque is composed of millions of bacteria that stick to each other and surfaces with a slimy matrix, and never a good thing to have in your body.

Plaque mineralizes to tartar within 24-48 hours, which can’t be removed by just brushing and needs to be scaled off.

Dogs and cats have teeth very similar to human teeth, susceptible to the same diseases- the only difference in human teeth and dog/cat teeth is the shape. Cats, which are pure carnivores, have fang teeth for grasping their prey and very sharp pointy premolars and molars, made for slicing their juicy prey into meat chunks small enough to be swallowed.

Dogs also have fang teeth for grasping, but their premolars are less sharp and pointy and some of their molars are flattened. This pointy tooth shape is why cats and dogs don’t really chew and crush their kibble. Humans have more flat grinding tooth surfaces because we are an omnivorous species (except for bleeding heart vegetarians like me).

After the final baby (deciduous) teeth fall out at 6 months, cats and dogs have their permanent teeth for the rest of their life- unless they become so rotten that they fall out, are knocked out by significant trauma, or are extracted surgically for having a dead root, a fracture (and root canal is not an option), immune tooth resorption, or most commonly severe infection of the surrounding bone and soft tissue (periodontal disease).

Infection and inflammation in the mouth give nasty oral bacteria access to the bloodstream, infecting distant organs like the kidneys and heart valves.

If properly cared for, the permanent teeth can stay healthy, pain free and functional for life. And if well cared for, there will not be an abhorrent, nauseating, obnoxious mouth odor that frightens houseguests and small children.

Dental home care’s goal is to remove plaque before it turns into tartar, and before bacteria can infect the gums, bones, and soft tissues surrounding the tooth. Plaque also stimulates the immune response in cats that causes tooth resorption. What does home care look like? Daily tooth brushing. Feeding diets and treats that are clinically proven to help reduce tartar and plaque (with the VOHC seal)- think apple, not fudge! 

Tooth brushing is the most effective tool for decreasing plaque buildup before it mineralizes to tartar in 24-48 hours. Brush your dog's and cat’s teeth, if at all possible (meaning if you will be pulling back a bloody finger stump we can look at other suboptimal options) every day with a finger toothbrush and toothpaste. Try to make the experience pleasant by slowly working up to brushing the entire mouth, being patient and gentle, and rewarding with petting or a treat.

The teeth with the most tartar deposition tend to be the upper premolars (in the back of the mouth). Consider putting your pet’s toothbrush next to yours so that tooth brushing becomes a routine. Don’t share the same toothbrush, obviously, no matter how deep the love goes, but it can be a helpful visual cue.

You can also try feeding VOHC approved treats (VOHC stands for Veterinary Oral Health Council, which puts its seal on products that have clinical trials proving their effectiveness). For a full list of treats go to Greenies are usually well liked (and are available at the office). Please remember that treats do have calories and that you may need to reduce the amount of calories from regular meals. You can consider using Hill's Prescription T/D diet for a dry kibble option- the kibble are large with cross hatched fibers that help remove plaque from the teeth.

For dogs, you can also try HealthyMouth, a water additive (VOHC seal) with all natural ingredients that is helpful in reducing plaque and tartar if your dog is happy to drink it. Please be wary of any "miracle" sprays for dental disease that are sold at pet stores with no VOHC seal- these have not been evaluated for efficacy and often do nothing for oral overall health. If it's too good to be true, it is probably too good to be true! Do not give your dog bones, antlers, cow hooves, rocks, ice, or hard plastic Nylabones to chew on. These commonly cause broken teeth- if the pulp is exposed, a broken tooth needs to have a root canal or be extracted.

Despite your best care efforts, most dogs, especially small breeds and greyhounds, and many cats will need regular dental cleanings under anesthesia to scale off tartar and radiographs (Xrays) to check for disease at the tooth roots. Just like you, who brush hopefully twice daily and floss, still need to see a hygienist to clean up, pets are no different. A healthy mouth is a key component in having a comfortable quality of life, a bloodstream free of nasty oral bacteria, and kissability. Smooch!


Dr. Astrid Kruse graduated from Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2003. After completing a year long rotating small animal medicine and surgery internship, she joined the staff at a large general practice hospital on the North Shore, where she enjoyed forming long term connections with her patients and clients. She is happy to be a part of the team at Domino Veterinary Hospital in Concord, MA. Her special interests include dog and cat internal medicine, preventative health care, rabbit and guinea pig medicine, soft tissue surgery, and dentistry in all species.