Home Dental Care for Dogs and Cats

By Sharon Billings, CVT
Associate Veterinary Information Specialist

Close-up of golden retrieverWhat if I told you there’s one quick and easy thing you can do that could add several years to your pet’s expected life span?  What if I told you this one thing could save you lots of money in future health care costs AND help keep your pet in tip-top health?  Would you be interested?  Read on to learn about the benefits of daily tooth brushing for dogs and cats!

Benefits of Brushing

  1. Ban bad breath! A clean, healthy mouth is easy on your nose – you won’t have to encounter smelly breath when playing or cuddling with your furry family member.
  2. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! A clean, healthy mouth is less likely to develop dental disease that could be painful and debilitating for your pet and require costly oral surgery.
  3. Healthy mouth, healthy body! A clean, healthy mouth acts as a guardian for the body and helps prevent bacteria from entering the bloodstream and damaging internal organs such as the heart and kidneys.

All that from tooth brushing?  How is that possible?

Just as in humans, food debris left on teeth causes the formation of plaque.  Plaque provides a perfect “home” for bacteria and as bacteria multiply the result is bad breath.  Plaque gradually hardens into tartar.  Bacteria flourish on the tartar and the result is dental disease.  Bacteria eventually migrate from a diseased mouth into the bloodstream and then travel throughout the body causing kidney and heart disease.  So, just as in humans, you can nip all that in the bud with just a few minutes of tooth brushing each day!

Before You Begin . . .

Be sure to check in with your pet’s veterinarian before starting a home dental care routine – he or she can give the “green light” to start.  Your pet’s veterinarian is also your best source for your supplies (see below).  Many veterinary clinics offer tooth brushing lessons!  It’s best and easiest to start any routine in puppyhood or kittenhood but it’s never too late to start!

Getting Started

Supplies:  Dogs and cats have sensitive gum tissue.  You’ll need an appropriately sized soft nylon bristle toothbrush.  Fluoride, often used in human toothpastes, can be an issue if swallowed – you’ll need a toothpaste designed for pets.  Pet toothpastes available through your veterinarian typically rely on enzymes (not fluoride) as their active ingredients and are safe when swallowed.  Pet toothpastes are available in a variety of flavors so it’s easy to find one your pet will enjoy!

Same time, same place:  Make it easy to establish your tooth brushing routine as a daily “for life” habit by using the same time of day and same location every day.

Baby steps:

  • For the first week, at tooth brushing time, simply offer a yummy toothpaste “treat” to your pet along with lots of praise. Just squirt a dab of toothpaste on the end of your finger and let your pet sniff and lick it up!
  • The following week, use your finger (with a dab of toothpaste) to massage gums and teeth.
  • After another week, introduce the brush (with toothpaste) and let your pet lick toothpaste from the brush.
  • Finally, in week 4, start working the brush into your pet’s mouth. Use your free hand to hold the upper lips up and out of your way.  You need to brush only the surfaces facing the checks and lips (not the surfaces facing the tongue).
  • Use a gentle up-and-down motion; start brushing at the back on one side and work your way around to the opposite side on the top and then the bottom.

Keep It Up (and Upbeat)!

Don’t become discouraged if things do not go perfectly on your first tries!  You may both end up “wearing” some of the toothpaste at first!  Keep each session short and try to make a bit of progress each day.  Keep your voice, comments, and body language positive so your pet will perceive this is a regular daily (dare we say fun?) routine!

A Healthy Habit For Life!

With a little practice, you and your pet will be tooth brushing pros and you’ll be able to complete a thorough daily tooth brushing in just two or three minutes a day.  You get a huge payback for a very modest time and effort investment.  And both of you will enjoy the benefits of your pet’s clean, healthy mouth!


Yes, I brush my pets’ teeth every day.  My dog Bridget actually comes running when she sees her (vanilla mint flavor) toothpaste coming down from the shelf.  While my cat Theo may not be quite that enthusiastic, he is cooperative and enjoys his (malt flavor) toothpaste!