Should I Use Toothpaste When Brushing my Dog’s Teeth?

brown and white dog with mouth open and tongue out

Most of us humans place a lot of emphasis on brushing our teeth. Not only for our oral health but for the prevention of bad breath. When it comes to this daily task, we have a distinct advantage over our pets due to our opposable thumbs and our big brains—well big brains in most of us.

Why should I brush my dog’s teeth?

To understand what toothpaste is best for your doggie one should first understand a few basic terms and why we brush our pet’s teeth. The first term to understand is gingivitis. The word can be divided into the prefix “gingiva” and the suffix “…itis”. Gingiva derives its origin from the Latin “the gum” which we all know is the tissue surrounding the teeth. The suffix “itis” derives its origin from the modern Greek “diseases characterized by inflammation”. Therefore, gingivitis is inflammation of the gums. It is often easy to diagnose due to red and inflamed gums. 

The culprit that causes gingivitis is a film of bacteria adjacent to the gum and on the surface of the teeth, referred to as plaque. Plaque starts to form on the surface of the tooth immediately after brushing and even after having the teeth professionally cleaned. 

It is often best described as the film we feel on the surface of our teeth when we wake up in the mornings. The problem is, when the gum is exposed to plaque accumulation from the surface of the teeth, it induces inflammation, hence gingivitis.  

And gingivitis will typically progress to periodontitis if left untreated. “Periodont” or periodontal refers to the supporting structures of the teeth (gum, bone, periodontal ligament, and cementum). Again, the suffix “itis” refers to inflammation. 

Periodontitis, or periodontal disease, is the inflammation and/or disease of the supporting structures of the teeth. Painful infection, abscess and tooth loss are, much too often, the sequela of periodontal disease. 

In most cases, gingivitis and periodontal disease in dogs can be prevented by regular visits to a board-certified veterinary dentist and regular home care.  

The Dangers of Plaque and Tartar

Plaque is soft and translucent in color. It is easily brushed away with a toothbrush. However, if it’s not removed early or not removed effectively it will start to mineralize—often within 48 hours.  

When plaque mineralizes, it is referred to as calculus and/or tartar. Calculus is a nasty brown color. It smells awful.  Calculus cannot be removed with a toothbrush. A professional dental cleaning is required to do so. As mentioned above, the goal of brushing your dog’s teeth is to remove the plaque, which is soft. 

There is a groove or crevice of gum referred to as the gingival sulcus adjacent to the tooth. The majority of evilness is caused by the plaque and or calculus occupying the gingival sulcus. For example, the nasty, stinky, and unsightly plaque and calculus on the surface of the tooth causes little systemic disease and infrequent harm to the periodontal tissues, however, it is a source of more plaque. 

Choosing VOCH-Approved Dental Products

The gold standard of oral hygiene in our beloved pets is brushing their teeth. We, as veterinary dental specialists, are often asked about giving our pets dental chews, foods, water additives, etc. in lieu of brushing. Many of these products are safe and somewhat effective if they are approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Counsel (VOHC). Manufacturers want their products to have the VOHC seal of approval because it often aids in selling their products. 

To be granted the coveted VOHC seal of approval the manufactural must submit valid research. The research must demonstrate that the products, if used appropriately, are unlikely to do harm and that they must do some good. “Some good” is relative. 

Regardless of the VOHC seal of approval, brushing is much better. A good analogy is that if one adds a buck of water to a dry swimming pool; the bucket of water did help fill it—but not much.

Toothpaste is An Incentive for Pets

The most important part of brushing your doggie’s or kittie’s teeth is the mechanical action of the bristles on the brush in disrupting the plaque. There is no doubt that toothpaste is helpful, however, it is secondary to the mechanical action of the brushing process. 

The primary contribution of using toothpaste when brushing your dog’s teeth is the taste. Many of our pets are motivated by food and treats. Most pets enjoy the taste of toothpaste, therefore the toothbrushing process with toothpaste becomes a more pleasurable experience for the pet, and therefore the pet parent. 

Using the Right Toothbrush

Recall that plaque is soft and easily removed by a soft bristle brush.  The use of hard bristles can lead to gum injury and long-term use can result in abrasion (abnormal wearing) of the teeth. In addition, hard bristles are just uncomfortable.  For most dogs, a child’s soft-bristled, small-head toothbrush is adequate. Of course, there are toothbrushes manufactured specifically for doggies and kitties.  

Brushing Your Dog’s Teeth

When brushing our pets’ teeth is best to angle the toothbrush at 45° to the junction of the tooth and gum. A circular motion is most effective. 

There are limitations to the frequency of the brushing of our pets’ teeth. It is probably obvious that the more the merrier. Twice daily is very good, and daily is good. Any tooth brushing performed less than every other day is probably ineffective.

Therefore, having the groomer brush your doggies’ teeth once every few weeks is a waste of effort. Because we humans are usually very busy a reasonable compromise is the brush your pets’ teeth for two minutes, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. More is better; however, life does get in the way on occasion. 

Since we know that calculus cannot be removed by brushing and it takes professional dental cleaning to do so, it is always more effective to start brushing immediately after having pets’ teeth professionally cleaned. 

To train them starting them as puppies or kitties is best. Even though your pet may get its teeth brushed daily and get VOHC-approved products it still needs to visit a board-certified veterinary dental specialist at least every year. 

As humans, we typically brush, floss, and visit our dentist every six months, however, dental problems still arise on occasion. Considering that our pets age approximately five to seven times faster than us, it is reasonable to visit a board-certified veterinary dental specialist at least once a year and in some cases every six months. That would be equivalent to a human visiting a dentist every five to seven years. 

With lots of love and patience most pets, not all, can be taught to enjoy the process of having their teeth brushed. It is frequently best to start them at a young age…making it a happy time for them.  

Kitties can be challenging, however, it can be done.  Start them as young kittens with short sessions with lots of love and petting. 

Board-Certified Veterinary Dentist in Phoenix

Ultimately, other than having your pet receive a comprehensive oral health assessment and treatment by a board-certified veterinary dental specialist, regularly brushing your pet’s teeth is next best. If your pet is in need of a dental cleaning, contact us at Carefree Dentistry and Oral Surgery for Animals. 


Photo by Helena Lopes