Cliff Notes: The Whole Tooth | Companion Animal Veterinary Hospital
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Cliff Notes: The Whole Tooth

Matt Young's picture
Golden Retriever having his teeth brushed.


What you need to know about your dog and home dental care

Sniff your dog’s breath.  Go on, I dare you.

Odds on, the odor is hardly enticing.

And that’s okay, within reason. Your average, healthy, happy dog, as a rule, get their jollies chowing down on a veritable shopping list of things too unspeakably revolting to contemplate printing, including, but not limited to: refuse, dead things, cat poop, horse poop and their own poop.  Or maybe that’s just mine. 

Any way you slice it, most dog’s breath is less than minty fresh.  But there is a definite line between a regular, doggy smell, and a distinctly unpleasant bouquet that tends to go hand in hand with tooth issues.

Dental disease is far and away the most common affliction of dogs, cats and people.  But that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can, or should, do about it.

Unhealthy teeth and infected gums are constantly, chronically painful, and sap the joy from chewing, eating, scrapping, playing, fetching, tugging, and hanging off things with you teeth, which is roughly 80% of what gives a canine life savor.

The other 20% would probably be cuddles and pillow hogging, both of which take a serious back seat in the day-to-day dealings of even the most beloved pooch when a certain stink threshold is reached.

So we owe it to them to help them make the most of life with a blissful abandon that would be the envy of the most hardened hedonist.

ALL dogs can get dental disease, but some are more predisposed than others.  So if you’re the proud parent of anything small and fluffy with a short face and a crowded jaw, I AM TALKING TO YOU.

The shorter the face, the more jumbled together the teeth, and the higher the likelihood of scraps getting stuck and encouraging bacteria.  The more squished the nose and airways, the more chance there will be of some degree of mouth breathing, which dries up bacteria fighting saliva.

Pugs, spaniels, malteses, poodles, shih tzus, yorkies,  Pomeranians, Chihuahuas, papillions, dachshunds, and, perversely, greyhounds, are massively at risk of developing crippling dental disease.  So part of sharing your life and your heart with one is budgeting your time and your finances to keep it from getting out of hand.

So what can we do?


Get to know your dog’s teeth.  Make a point to look in their mouth at least once a week.  Learn what normal looks like, so you will know what to look for.

The teeth should be smooth and pearly white, the gums a nice salmon pink, definitely not red or bleeding, the breath should be doggy, but not vile, and you shouldn’t be able to see anywhere the gum recedes unevenly from the teeth.

Book them in for a half yearly dental check.

They’re free.

We’ll check ‘em when your pet comes in for their annual needles and physical, but a lot can change in twelve months.  Double how often we see them, and you double your chances of catching dental disease early.

And keep your eyes peeled for any signs of teeth troubles.  The most common is bad breath, but others include drooling, reluctance to eat, chewing funny, bright red, angry, inflamed gums, weird swellings of the jaw or bulging of the eye, and pawing or rubbing the face.

Any one of these show that dental disease has gotten to the point where it is seriously negatively affecting the life of your pet.  The sooner we notice it, the sooner we can fix it.


Chewing is great.  It’s stress relief, boredom control, channels a perfectly natural, but potentially destructive behavior, and it’s a great work out for the teeth and gums.

But it’s not without hazards.

Bones seem to be a big favorite. But these must be carefully selected, the correct size, whole and not chopped, and above all, raw.  A bone that is to large or two hard can easily break teeth, something too small and too soft can be splintered and swallowed, causing very serious damage to the gut, old bones can be a source of harmful bacteria.  The ideal bone is of a size suitable to the chewer, raw, fresh, and with plenty of sinew that can be enthusiastically stripped away.  A bone is a supervised chew toy. When all the flesh has been torn off, it should be taken away and thrown out.

Chew treats, like Greenies, or raw-hides, are also very popular.  These are great, because they are formulated to physically remove bacteria, and avoid the risk of fracturing chewing teeth and delivering large boluses of salmonella straight to your puppy’s sensitive stomach.  But there is still a risk that an over eager pup can gnaw away just enough to swallow it whole, and get it nastily wedged.  So keep an eye on a dog settling into a tooth-cleaning snack.

3 –Diet

On that note, what you put into your dog’s mouth has a big impact on how healthy it stays.

Wet food requires no chewing at all, and is exactly the right consistency to coat crannies and crevices in your pet’s mouth, where it will provided bacteria with a delicious soup of nutrients they need to turbo charge their growth.  Dry food is nutritionally balanced, and requires at least some degree of dental work, (though you wouldn’t think so to see a certain puppy I know hoover breakfast).

And if your life partner is one of those breeds mentioned as being at serious risk, or you’ve had teething troubles in the past, you might want to investigate a specific dental diet.  Royal Canin makes one formulated as a spongy biscuit of lightly interwoven fibers, which the dog or cat’s teeth have to sink deeply into before it breaks, giving it a chance to scrub away bacteria, and encouraging chewing and antibacterial saliva.

4- Brushing

The dreaded final piece of the home dental care puzzle piece.  Really, expecting your dog’s mouth to stay clean without it is the equivalent of junking your toothbrush on the reasoning that you eat plenty of carrots and anti-bacterial gum.

Nothing else you can do at home compares.

We all know this the way that we know we should probably hit the gym three times a week and that pringles and an orange are not the breakfast of champions.

But here goes.

The trick is, ideally, to start young. Make it part of the daily routine.  Make it fun.  Throw in treats and praise.  Like any training, start small.  Play with their gums, touch their teeth. Show them the toothbrush and give them a treat and a snuggle.  Start with a few seconds and build up.  Cover the bristles in something yummy, like a good pet toothpaste, beef or chicken broth, or something fishy for cats.

Things to avoid are:

  • people tooth paste.  It’s designed to be spat out, and is ladened with harmful chemicals designed to make it foam that play havoc with the gut, and chock with enough fluoride to seriously hurt your dog.  It’s not the paste but the brushing action that gets the job done.  You can go for a pet toothpaste to enhance the process, but mostly they are just making the experience taster and more enjoyable all-round.  Which is not a bad thing.
  • firm tooth brushes. Hard bristles only cause damage to the gum line.  For dogs, go either for a pet toothbrush or a soft children’s brush, like those for 3-6 year olds usually does a good job.  Similar options work well for cats, though a very well known veterinary dentist advocates a make-up removing pad soaked in tuna juice.
  • Pushing too hard, too fast.  Making caring for pearly whites a power struggle and a chore means the job will never get done.  So build it slowly, and make it positive.

But I’m going to tell you a nasty little secret.  At a recent dental conference I attended, a quick straw poll of the audience’s vets found 85% of them recommended owners brush their pet’s teeth on a regular basis.

When asked if they brushed their own pet’s teeth, 70% said no.

And I’m going to come out of the closet as one of them.

Which kind of throws the importance of the first three steps into sharp relief.  If you’re not going to brush responsibly and often, you really do have to budget for a regular scale and polish at the first sign of dental disease.

Oh, and as a side note, all the very best home care can do is slow dental disease’s inevitable march.  All the brushing in the world is not going to reverse calculus and reattach loose teeth.

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