Based on an article that first appeared at GeniusVets

Every February, the AVMA sponsors National Pet Dental Health Month to bring awareness to the importance of oral health for your dogs and cats – not only to keep their teeth and gums healthy but their internal organs as well. While bad breath is often assumed to be typical of pets, especially dogs, that odor is actually a warning sign of oral health issues that can lead to gum disease and organ damage due to bacteria entering the bloodstream. In honor of National Pet Dental Health Month, we’ve outlined five ways to make home dental care easier for both you and your dog.

Get Your Dog Comfortable With Their Mouth Being Touched

Dogs instinctively want to use their mouths to chew or bite, which means they need to get comfortable with the idea that they need to treat their owner’s fingers or a toothbrush need differently. Start by gently touching their mouth and teeth with your finger, slowly rubbing your finger along their teeth and gum line. You can even put some toothpaste on your finger to get them used to the taste. This is best done when they’re relaxed and perhaps a bit tired and best avoided when they’re full of energy and want to play. While they might pull away from the first several attempts, repeat it daily until they stay calm and relaxed. While getting this routine going as a puppy is easier, you can train older dogs to have their teeth brushed regularly too!

Slowly Introduce a Toothbrush

Once your dog has become relaxed when their teeth and gums are touched, allow them to gently explore a toothbrush. Let them smell the toothbrush while you gently rub their teeth with it. If your dog starts to bite at the toothbrush, remove it from their mouth and try again several hours later or the following day. Don’t rush the process, or your dog might develop an adverse reaction to the toothbrush when it reappears. Toothbrushing should not be forced or seen as scary. We want to make it a positive experience for all.

Establish a Routine

Dogs are creatures of habit and know when to expect their owners to return home from work, when they should be fed, and when they need to settle down for the night. Make brushing their teeth a part of their daily routine, and they’ll quickly come to expect it. Introduce a dog-friendly flavored toothpaste to make it an enjoyable experience, and they might even start to consider it a daily treat. Remember never to use human toothpaste, which is not safe to swallow (and most dogs don’t care for the mint flavor).

Avoid a Dominating Position

When it’s time to brush your dog’s teeth, especially when it’s still relatively new to them, avoid positioning yourself in a dominating or aggressive position. You want your dog to feel as though brushing is an activity you enjoy together, and a threatening stance above them or holding them down will cause them to become anxious and tense. Kneel or sit in front of them or to their side to give them a sense of comfort and calmness.

End With Positive Reinforcement

Once the brushing is over and assuming your dog was accommodating, reward them with their favorite treat, extra playtime, and extra love. Always stop brushing before they become anxious or agitated, so they continue to associate it as a positive experience, and end with a treat, so they know they behaved well by allowing you to brush their teeth. Keeping the atmosphere light, fun, and positive is the key to repetitive brushing with no issues.

Dental chews and even prescription foods help fight plaque and tartar buildup for dogs that challenge brushing at home. While they don’t replace brushing, they serve as a practical solution if you can only brush your dog’s teeth once or twice a week. Consult with your veterinarian about the appropriate dental chew for your dog, and be sure to review the AVMA’s list of oral health warning signs so you can catch any issues early. Contact us if you want to learn more about keeping your dog’s teeth and gums healthy.