Pet Dental Care Tips from Our Alexandria Veterinarian

Its hard to brush a pet’s teeth, but it doesn’t have to be perfect!

Like us, our pets do get food residue stuck on their teeth, and bacteria feed upon those little bits left behind.  Over time, this can lead to the exact same problems we face, such as bad breath, irritated and bleeding gums, and, if those are left untreated, serious tooth disease can follow.  While it’s not too bad to teach a child to brush their own teeth, our pets don’t really go for it the same way as kids do.  During this Dental Awareness Month, we wanted to talk about what you can do if your pet really hates having their teeth brushed.

Come let us clean them: A thorough dental examination in our hospital is the right solution for all pets.  It is estimated that 80% of pets over the age of three have some signs of dental disease.  The process starts with a wellness examination, but a dental examination under anesthesia is the only way we can get dental x-rays to see what the whole mouth looks like.  While we humans are more compliant with getting x-rays and cleanings done, our pets are a bit less understanding!  Once we have an x-ray, we can treat any hidden issues that same day and send your pet home with a clean mouth.  However, we only get to see your pet a few times a year, so to keep your investment in their health, we should talk about how to care for them at home.  These recommendations will hopefully support your efforts to keep things neat and tidy.

Brushing is the gold standard for at home care: 01-Fingerbrush-w-Toothpaste-Sample.png


Give it a try.  You want to start off incredibly gently at first; don’t expect your dog or cat to patiently open their mouth and let you reach a finger brush all the way back to their molars.  Toothpastes for pets are flavored like things they would like to lick, so treat them like you would a child – a lick counts as a try.  If they go for the flavor of the paste, you can offer this as a treat and gently touch their front teeth.  The more they get used to the idea of the finger cot poking their teeth while they have something tasty, the more they’ll be alright with you working the brush along their molars.  Not all pets are going to go for this, but if yours does, fantastic – you’re well on your way to making sure their pearly whites remain pearly!

Dental care isn’t all or none: If after a few weeks of trying your pet is just not going for this, don’t give up on dental care.  Studies of pet dental care are pretty rare, but one done in 1994 (Miller and Harvey) found that only about half of dog owners taught to brush their pets teeth were still doing it multiple times a week.  If brushing is the gold option, we can still be happy with silver and bronze.  Here’s a few ideas for other things to try:




Purina, Hills and Royal Canin all do pretty extensive research on nutrition, flavor and even the shape of kibble.  Apparently cross shaped kibble stays in the mouth of dogs the longest (, which can also have benefits to slow them down on their chomping.  If your pet actually chews their food, this could be something that helps get some brushing action done even during a meal.   If your pet is a gulper, then this may not be the best option, but choice of food can make a difference for a lot of health conditions.  Try out a dental specific diet if you haven’t yet.





There are a lot of dental treats on the market, but, like food, if your pet is a gulper, then you’re paying a lot of money for calories and not actually getting any dental cleaning accomplished.  A dental chew, where your pet has to work on chomping a complex textured chew before they can swallow it.  Some cats really go for the flavor of these and will run off with the chews to make sure nobody else takes it away from them – mine runs like he just stole food off the counter!  The chews have the texture of those biodegradable packing noodles; they’re mushy enough to get teeth pushed through it, and that’s when the texture works its magic deep down to the gumline as your pet is working the treat. 

Water additives:

This one is tricky.  Dogs and cats can have a strong aversion to mint, while we find it really pleasant on breath.  A lot of pet water additives are mint flavored, which the human customers may appreciate smelling on pet breath, but this may drive your pets to shun their water bowl in preference for a toilet (eww).  If you can get your pet to drink water sufficiently while adding a supplement to it, it may be ok to try – but don’t necessarily expect a miracle here.  Our drinking water (and therefore your pets drinking water) already is fluoridated to help general dental health, but we still have to brush our teeth too.  The same is true for our pets.  If you absolutely can’t stand your pet’s breath, there may be something going on in there that a water additive would only cover.  Rotten breath in pets means the same as it does in humans – time for a cleaning!

Be sure to run ideas by your veterinarian.  There’s a lot of great looking products on the market, but you know your pet, and your pet’s healthcare team can help navigate to products that look great and actually are beneficial.  We hope to see your pet soon for a dental examination – prevention is the key, and you see your pets’ teeth far more than we can.  Let’s work together on keeping your pet’s dental health the best for their long-term health.