10 Tips for Brushing Your Pet’s Teeth

March 13, 2013 | By | Comments (4)

“You don’t have to brush all the teeth, just the ones you want to keep!” quips Patricia Dominguez, a practicing veterinary dental technician specialist at Gotham Veterinary Center in New York. (Full disclosure: my vet)

It took a minute to sink in, though I realized two things at once: 1) This was no joke. 2) There would be no cutting corners in my quest for great pet dental health.

I asked Dominguez what sort of frequency she’d recommend. “The gold standard is brushing their teeth every day, twice a day,” she said. “Statistics show that doing it less than a few times a week is not worth it,” she added.

Oh dear. So the teeth cleanings at the groomer’s were clearly insufficient.

Patricia Dominguez examines a dog's teeth. Courtesy: Gotham Veterinary Center.

Dominguez examines a dog’s teeth. 

“I give him dental chews,” I proudly explained. “My friend’s dog is on a special diet that allegedly makes his teeth look nice and white.”

Dominguez was unimpressed. “There’s no way of getting away from brushing. It’s the main thing that removes food particles and bacteria from the mouth,” she said. As for chews and diets, she put in a plug for vetting by the vet if you’ll forgive my pun. “The most highly effective tartar control diets and chews are the ones you can get from your veterinarian,” she said.

Dominguez explained that in addition to dental disease, bacteria in the plaque and tartar could cause harmful effects to pets’ heart, lungs, kidneys and liver.

I was sufficiently sobered and resolved to start brushing my pet’s teeth on the spot.

Dominguez examines a cat's teeth. Courtesy: Gotham Veterinary Center.

Dominguez examines a cat’s teeth. 

Here, Dominguez’s tips for brushing your pet’s teeth:

1) Use pet toothpaste and not human toothpaste as the latter can be harmful to your pet if swallowed.

2) A pet toothbrush (with soft bristles) is a better fit for a pet’s skull than a human toothbrush and has a longer handle so there’s more distance between your pet’s mouth and your fingers. A toothbrush will be much more effective at removing plaque and bacteria than a finger brush.

3) Make the experience enjoyable for you and your pet by using lots of positive reinforcement.

4) Incorporate pet tooth brushing into your daily routine, putting the toothpaste and toothbrush somewhere visible, whether next to their food, leash, or on the coffee table.

5) Time it right. Don’t rush to brush their teeth immediately after they’ve finished their meal, as this could give them a negative association between eating and teeth cleaning. Let them eat, wait a while, then brush their teeth, and you can give them a treat afterwards as positive reinforcement.

6) Take it slowly and don’t falter. Your pet may adapt to this new experience in a matter of days, but it could just as easily take weeks. Keep your resolve, and be patient.

Patricia Dominguez Brushes Dogs Teeth

Dominguez brushing a dog’s teeth. 

Dominguez’s step-by-step guide for how to brush your pet’s teeth:

1) Find a flavor of toothpaste that your pet will enjoy. Put a taste on your finger, a treat, or a toy in order to acclimate your pet to the flavor and the realization that it can be a yummy reward.

2) Put a small amount of the toothpaste on the toothbrush and let your pet lick it clean. Not only will they get used to the feeling of the bristles on their tongue, gums, and teeth, they will also realize that it’s nothing to be scared of.

3) When you’ve reached the point where your pet doesn’t hesitate to lick the toothpaste off the toothbrush, try to brush your pet’s front teeth in a circular motion.

4) If your pet is comfortable with this toothbrushing experience, try to brush the teeth further to the back, again in a circular motion. Spend at least 30 seconds if possible on each side. You don’t need to brush the inside of the teeth — most pets won’t let you!

Professional Dental Cleanings

Dominguez recommends getting your pet’s teeth checked every 6 months, though she advocates a professional cleaning with thorough oral exams once a year. This recommendation can change from pet to pet, which is why dental evaluations are so important. Note that during a professional cleaning, general anesthesia is administered so that the specialist can clean, examine and treat any affected teeth. Common findings include teeth that are loose, discolored, worn or crowded, as well as exposed or abscessed roots.

Dental Pet Products

Dominguez recommends visiting the website of the Vet Oral Health Council, which awards The VOHC® Seal of Acceptance to those products it has accepted.

What about you? Have you tried to brush your pet’s teeth? How did it go?

And before you tell me that you have a cat and that this would never work, let me share with you that Dominguez’s 6-year old tabby loves getting his teeth brushed (natch!). “Cats are funny creatures and as soon as they realize that humans can do one more thing for them…” She trails off, then picks up steam. “It’s their world and we just live in it!” she muses with a chuckle.

All photos courtesy: Gotham Veterinary Center.


  1. living6

    I found out about the importance of dental care for dogs the hard way. My English setter had an abscessed tooth that needed to be extracted — resulting in a hefty hit to the bank account and more importantly, risked my dog’s health — all because I hadn’t given her teeth proper attention. I thought giving her a daily dental treat and feeding her high quality dog food was good enough. Not so.

    Now, every week, I rub a minty gel on the outside of my dog’s teeth. Takes about two minutes and doesn’t require brushing. My dog doesn’t seem to mind this at all.

    March 14, 2013 at 7:55 am
  2. Andrew C

    Just bought the doggy toothpaste this past weekend. Was wondering how to transition into getting them to allow to do it. Thanks for the help!

    March 14, 2013 at 2:17 pm
  3. EllenS

    Early on a vet suggested Hills Science Diet T/D-small bites for my cockapoo since poodles and spaniels are prone to dental issues. His white gleaming teeth could be featured in a Crest ad. I leave this dry food for him to eat at will and it does the trick. I admit I rarely brush his teeth since the food does that for him.

    March 14, 2013 at 3:23 pm
  4. lynngilbert

    The article is great, and makes you realize the importance of your own dental care..

    Lucky for those who have cats and dogs for pets and not lions or tigers. I wouldn’t want to tangle with them over dental hygiene.

    March 14, 2013 at 7:08 pm

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