If you’re reading this, your dog’s teeth almost certainly need more attention.
About 80% of dogs over age 3 have some signs of dental disease. And yet, only a small percentage of dog parents brush their dog’s teeth daily, or even a few times per week.
You probably know that you need to brush your dog’s teeth more often, but don’t know where to start.
Or, you may feel like you aren’t accomplishing much when you do brush because your dog won’t let you access her molars, or that flicking tongue gets in the way.
While brushing is the most effective way to keep your dog safe from dental disease, it’s not your only option, and there’s much more to dental health than brushing.
To celebrate Pet Dental Health Month, and to help answer your questions (and many of my own questions!) about dental health, I asked veterinarians for tips for helping our small dogs keep their teeth clean.
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Why Small Dog Parents Need To Care For Their Dog’s Teeth
Though all dogs are prone to dental health issues, some larger dogs can go their whole lives without much special attention and still keep all of their teeth. This is definitely not the case for small dogs, though.
“Small dogs have the same number of teeth as big dogs,” says Dr. Sara Ochoa, veterinary consultant for DogLab.com. “With all the crowding of teeth in their little mouth, [sic] make a great place for bacteria and tartar to build up.“
That’s why we see so many older Chihuahuas and other small dogs with gummy smiles and a tongue that sticks out without teeth to hold it in place. A hanging tongue can become dry and cracked, which is probably as uncomfortable as it sounds.
But caring for your dog’s dental health is about so much more than helping her keep all of her teeth. Poor dental health can affect her entire body, and even shorten her lifespan.
“Poor dental health translates to infection and chronic inflammation in the mouth. We know that chronic inflammation anywhere in the body has deleterious effects on the rest of the body, increasing the risks of disease,” says Rachel Szumel, DVM.
“There is a lot we don’t know yet, but a recent study showed a direct effect of periodontal disease on heart disease, and it’s very likely that it also contributes to chronic kidney and liver disease. Bacteria from the mouth getting into the bloodstream and traveling around the body is not a good thing!”
How To Brush Your Dog’s Teeth
Every veterinarian I spoke to about dog dental health said that there is absolutely no substitute for daily brushing.
Even though it can be difficult to get your dog to tolerate it, and it can be messy and unpleasant for you, it’s still the easiest way to avoid the pain and expenses of extractions, infections, and other dental issues.
I personally have always used CET Poultry Flavor Toothpaste. The tasty chicken flavor helps even reluctant dogs tolerate brushing, but more importantly, it contains enzymes that help break down plaque.
I’ve noticed that if I dab it onto problem areas it keeps working in the dog’s mouth.
As for brushes, it’s so difficult to find anything that fits in Matilda’s tiny mouth. For Cow, I use a children’s toothbrush, but for Matilda, I use this Japanese brush I found on Amazon that works pretty well.
For technique, check out my post about how to brush your small dog’s teeth with much less drama.
Rachel Szumel, DVM, who has a 9-pound Chihuahua, says, “I really like the Oral B infant brushes for my tiny dog – the head is small, the bristles soft, and the bristles are fairly short, so it’s easier to get in her mouth.”
Rachel Szumel co-created a home dental care course for dogs, which includes step-by-step videos to help you brush your dog’s teeth the fear-free way.
What Can My Dog Chew To Clean Her Teeth?
Chewing is the most natural, no-fuss way to get your dog’s teeth clean. However, it’s still not a substitute for brushing, particularly because your dog will mainly use their molars, or back teeth, to chew.
So, she may not be able to get rid of plaque that accumulates on her canines – you know, her pointy fangs.
The exception to this would be raw meaty bones. When Matilda eats raw bones, I can see her using all of her teeth to pull and tear away meat, including her problematic incisors (those itty bitty teeth in the front).
If you’re looking for a commercially available dental chew, make sure it has the VOHC seal, which means it has been approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council.
Your dog can also chew on nonedible toys to help clean their teeth. Soft toys can gently wipe away plaque.
However, watch out for rock-hard bones and chews. They can break your dog’s teeth, causing painful, fractured teeth that usually need to be extracted.
Several vets I spoke to recommended only letting your dog chew on bones that you are able to make a dent into with your thumb nail. This leaves out most chews, including classic Nylabones.
Learn more about dental chews, bones and alternatives to help keep your dog’s teeth clean with chewing.
Other Alternatives or Supplements To Brushing
While there is no perfect substitute for brushing, there are other ways you can clean your dog’s teeth. You can use these techniques alongside brushing, or on days on which you’re too busy to make time to brush.
Water additives are the easiest, you just add a tablespoon or so to your dog’s water bowl every time you top it off. Every time your dog goes for a sip, the additive kills bacteria, freshens breath, and forms a protective film over her teeth.
Dental wipes can work, too. You just wrap the wipe over your finger and gently swipe your dog’s teeth. Though it’s nearly as involved as brushing, wipes are less messy and easier to travel with.
Dental spray can possibly work, but I found that with how small Matilda’s face is, it was impossible to use without risking getting some in her eye.
You can also squirt some toothpaste onto a toy and encourage your dog to chew on it and play with it.
How Does Diet Affect Your Dog’s Teeth?
Diet plays many important roles in your dog’s dental health.
First, the chewing action required to eat the food can sometimes chip away at tartar.
While dry dog food has been shown to result in somewhat cleaner teeth than canned food, you cannot depend upon it to keep your dog’s teeth clean.
Dry dog food typically has a high carbohydrate content to hold the food together, whether it’s made with grains like corn or rice, or legumes like peas or lentils.
Bits of carb-heavy dog food can stick to your dog’s teeth and break down into sugars, which feed oral bacteria and lead to dental issues. So, dogs who eat an exclusively dry diet still need to brush.
Also note that a diet that consists mainly of dry kibble has many negative consequences that outweigh any negligible dental health benefits.
A raw diet, on the other hand, can contain raw meaty bones that your dog has to chew, which can help control plaque. What’s more, raw meat contains enzymes that fight oral bacteria.
Most of the time, Matilda eats a combination raw/kibble diet, but when I run out of kibble, I’ll give her raw for a week or so. When she eats only raw, her teeth stay noticeably cleaner. She only gets black buildup between her incisors when she eats kibble.
Even so, a raw diet alone is not enough to keep your dog’s teeth clean. But it certainly helps.
Does My Dog Need Professional Dental Cleaning?
Even with the best at-home preventative care, your small dog is probably going to need a professional dental cleaning at some point.
“Certainly all tiny dogs [need professional dental cleaning]. The reason is that it’s not just the cleaning – it’s the dental xrays to find problems under the gum line, and then preventative treatment of any crowding or other abnormalities that will really make the difference. This has to be done under anesthesia,” says Rachel Szumel, DVM.
“Even if you are brushing daily, expect to need professional dental treatments in your small dogs. It’s the combination that keeps things on track! Brushing alone will help, but it will not be enough in small dogs.”
What About Anesthesia-Free Cleaning?
Just like all small dog owners, you probably hesitate to put your dog under anesthesia, as our pups are more vulnerable to bad reactions.
But with anesthesia-free cleanings, your dog does not get an x-ray, which can tell your veterinarian if she needs extractions or if an infection has advanced beneath the gumline.
Make sure your veterinarian does pre-surgery bloodwork every time your dog goes under, and talk to them about the risks vs. advantages of putting them under for dental cleaning, especially if your dog is a senior or their life may otherwise be at risk.
Keep in mind that veterinarians routinely do surgery on puppies and kittens that are just a few weeks old and weigh ounces, not pounds, so the average, healthy small dog will likely get through a dental procedure just fine.
Know the signs of a dental emergency so you can act fast if your dog is at risk for a serious dental infection and/or in pain.
Fractured or broken teeth should be treated immediately, even if your dog does not seem to be in pain. Your dog will most likely need a root canal or for her tooth to be removed.
Left untreated, the site will likely become infected and can spread to the surrounding tissues, to the jaw bone, and in some cases, especially with our small dogs who have tiny faces, the infection can even spread to their eye and cause blindness.
Fractured teeth can go unnoticed, so daily brushing is a good way to monitor for them.
Watch out for signs like facial swelling, reluctance to eat, excessive bleeding when chewing on toys, drooling, or obvious signs of pain.
Even if you take great care of your dog’s teeth, there is a chance that she may still have to undergo dental extractions.
Genetically, some dogs are more prone to dental problems. Making at-home dental care part of your daily routine will help a lot, but you will still need to monitor for surface-level issues. Then, go for yearly dental exams so your veterinarian can use an x-ray to detect problems below the gumline.
One day, I noticed that Matilda had a grey, wiggly tooth. I called the vet and set up a dental for the same day. The tooth was extracted because, despite my best efforts, it had rotted down to the root.
No other extractions were needed and her cleaning went smoothly, but the vet also noticed that she was missing other teeth, too, likely because they simply never grew in – a phenomenon common in small dogs. With an x-ray, the vet could see that they hadn’t grown in at all, rather than stayed unerupted below the gum line.
How Do You Care For Your Dog’s Teeth?
Do you have any tips or tricks for keeping your dog’s teeth clean? Have you ever had to take your dog for a professional cleaning, and have they had extractions? Share your experiences in the comments!