To Brush or Not to Brush. What’s Best for Your Dog’s Dental Health?


Does your dog’s breath smell bad? Do they have buildup on their teeth or sensitive, inflamed gums? Most dog owners have seen signs that their pup’s oral health is not what it should be. Poor dental care can lead to tooth decay, gum disease, infections, and even behavioral problems in dogs. So how can we best care for our dogs’ teeth and prevent these issues? That’s an important question for any dog owner aiming to keep their furry friend happy and healthy.

Maintaining good oral hygiene is just as essential for dogs as it is for humans. According to the American Veterinary Dental College, by age 3 over 80% of dogs have some form of dental disease. Left untreated, this can cause chronic pain, systemic illness, and tooth loss. Caring for our dogs’ teeth is clearly vital for their wellbeing. But what is the best way to do it – brushing or dental treats and chews? Let’s explore the pros and cons of each method.

Periodontal disease and tooth decay are common issues for dogs. According to estimates, by age 3 over 80% of dogs have some form of dental disease (Dog Dental Disease Statistics). As plaque and tartar build up on the teeth and under the gums, it can lead to infection and tooth loss. The bacteria from dental diseases can also spread through the bloodstream and damage internal organs.
by age 3 over 80% of dogs have some form of dental disease.

Dental Disease in Dogs

Periodontal disease begins when plaque accumulates on the teeth. Within days, this plaque hardens into tartar that adheres to the teeth and can only be removed by a veterinarian. Tartar buildup leads to inflamed gums, receding gums, and eventual tooth loss. The bacteria from tartar can spread through the blood vessels and cause damage to internal organs like the heart, kidneys, and liver.

Tooth decay is also an issue, especially with small dog breeds. The sugars in food interact with bacteria in the mouth to erode and decay teeth. Signs of tooth decay include discolored or chipped teeth.

According to veterinary research, by age 3 over 80% of dogs have some signs of dental disease (Dog Dental Disease Statistics). Small dogs are especially prone to periodontal disease. Regular dental care at home and professional cleanings are essential to prevent and treat dental issues.

Brushing Dogs’ Teeth

Brushing your dog’s teeth is the most effective way to remove plaque and tartar, which can help prevent gum disease and tooth decay. The American Veterinary Dental College recommends brushing your dog’s teeth daily, or at least several times a week.

the veterinary dental college recommends brushing dog teeth daily.

Here are some tips for brushing your dog’s teeth properly:

  • Use a soft-bristled brush made specifically for dogs. Human toothbrushes are too big.
  • Use veterinarian-approved toothpaste, not human toothpaste which can upset your dog’s stomach.
  • Lift the lips to expose the outer surfaces of the teeth. Brush with gentle circular motions at a 45 degree angle to the gumline.
  • Brush the inner, outer, and chewing surfaces of all teeth.
  • Take your time – 2-3 minutes per side is ideal.

To make brushing easier:

  • Start when your dog is young so they get used to it.
  • Give your dog praise and treats during and after brushing so they associate it with something positive.
  • Gradually work up to brushing the entire mouth. It can take time for dogs to accept having their teeth brushed.
  • Make it part of your dog’s night-time routine.
  • Try different flavored toothpastes, like poultry or peanut butter, to make brushing more enticing.

With patience and positive reinforcement, regular tooth brushing can become an accepted routine in no time.

Dental Treats and Chews

There are a variety of dental treats and chews available that can help clean your dog’s teeth and freshen their breath. Some popular options include:

Edible dental chews – These are made to be gnawed on and come in different textures and flavors. The abrasive action helps scrape away plaque and tartar as the dog chews. Some popular brands are Greenies, Pedigree Dentastix, and Milk-Bone Brushing Chews. Pros are they are easy to feed daily and dogs enjoy chewing them. Cons are they may not fully clean the teeth, especially the inner surfaces, and some dogs may gulp them down quickly without much chewing. Additionally, some dogs are sensitive to ingredients like wheat gluten commonly found in these treats.

Rawhide chews – Rawhide provides a sturdy chewing texture that helps clean teeth surfaces through abrasion. Look for treats stamped with the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal. Potential cons are some dogs are sensitive to rawhide and may experience upset stomach or diarrhea. There is also a small risk of choking if large pieces are swallowed. Supervise dogs when feeding rawhide.

Natural chews – Chews made from ingredients like bully sticks, cow hooves, antlers, or pig ears provide a nice chewing texture. The natural surface helps scrape plaque away. They are often more digestible than rawhide. The downside is they don’t last as long as synthetic chews. Additionally, some heavy chewers may bite off and swallow larger chunks, posing a choking risk.

When choosing dental chews, look for the VOHC seal and be sure to monitor your dog to ensure the size and texture are appropriate. Rotate different chews to keep your dog interested and motivated to gnaw and clean their teeth.

Veterinarian Cleanings

Professional dental cleanings done by a veterinarian are the best way to thoroughly clean a dog’s teeth and prevent periodontal disease. During a veterinary dental cleaning, the veterinarian will sedate or anesthetize the dog, scale and polish all of the teeth, take dental x-rays if needed, extract any loose or infected teeth, and perform other treatments as necessary.

Veterinarians recommend professional dental cleanings for dogs at least once per year starting around age 2-3. Small breed dogs may need more frequent cleanings such as every 6-12 months since they are prone to more dental issues. Cleanings help to fully remove plaque and tartar from under the gumline that brushing at home generally can’t reach. They also allow the vet to identify any problems early before they become serious infections.

According to sources like Emancipet and Montana Pet Dental, annual dental cleanings are considered the gold standard for preventing periodontal disease in dogs and maintaining their oral health.

Comparing Brushing and Treats

Both brushing and dental treats have pros and cons when it comes to maintaining your dog’s oral health.

Pros of Brushing

Brushing your dog’s teeth is considered the gold standard for preventing plaque buildup and tartar that can lead to periodontal disease. According to Small Door Veterinary, tooth brushing with an approved toothpaste can reduce plaque and tartar by as much as 85%. The mechanical action of brushing physically removes bacteria and debris from the tooth surfaces.

Brushing also allows you to inspect your dog’s entire mouth for any signs of dental disease or other issues. It creates a bonding experience and gets your dog comfortable with having its mouth handled.

Cons of Brushing

The biggest downside of brushing is that not all dogs will tolerate it. It takes time and patience to get some dogs comfortable with having their teeth brushed. Skippers or dogs with anxious temperaments may resist the process.

Brushing also relies on the owner being committed to maintaining a regular brushing routine. Forgetting to brush or skipping days can quickly lead to buildup on the teeth.

Pros of Dental Treats and Chews

Dental treats and chews are often an easier option for owners since dogs are motivated to chew them as a treat. The abrasive textures and ingredients in treats help scrape away tartar and reduce plaque to some degree. According to Rover, dental treats and chews can reduce plaque by 15-20%.

dental treats can reduce plaque by 15-20% according to rover.

Treats are also more convenient for on-the-go use or when it’s not possible to brush a dog’s teeth daily.

Cons of Dental Treats and Chews

The biggest downside of dental treats and chews is that they are not as effective as brushing. They only remove superficial plaque and tartar, whereas brushing disrupts biofilms at the gumline as well. Hard treats and aggressive chewing also pose dangers to dogs with weak teeth.

Overreliance on treats can also lead to excess calories and weight gain if too many are consumed. Their effects depend on the dog’s interest and willingness to chew them.

Other Oral Health Considerations

In addition to brushing and treats, there are some other products and practices that can promote good oral health for dogs:

Dental water additives – These liquid solutions contain chlorhexidine or other antiseptics that help reduce plaque when added to drinking water. The Veterinary Oral Health Council has approved some brands like HealthyMouth and Oxyfresh Pet Oral Hygiene Solution.

Dental gels and rinses – Applying a gel or rinse formulated for pets directly onto the teeth and gums can help reduce bacteria. The Veterinary Oral Health Council has approved products like Oratene Brushless Oral Care and PetzLife Oral Care Gel.

Regular veterinary dental cleanings – Even with diligent at-home care, most pets still require professional dental cleanings at the vet every 6-12 months. Vets can scale tartar, polish teeth, and inspect for issues like fractures, resorptions, and gum disease.

Avoiding harmful chews – While some chews help clean teeth, others may damage teeth and gums. Avoid hard chews like hooves, antlers, bones, and ice. Softer options like rubber or rope are gentler on teeth.

Following feeding guidelines – Dry kibble helps scrub teeth, while wet foods and table scraps provide minimal dental benefits. Feeding a mix and avoiding excessive treats keeps teeth cleaner.

Regular oral exams – Pet owners should regularly look in their dog’s mouth for signs of dental disease like red gums, yellow-brown tartar, and broken or loose teeth.

Signs of Dental Problems

There are several symptoms that can indicate your dog may have a dental issue that requires veterinary attention. These include:

signs of dental disease include bad breath, loose teeth, and chewing issues.

  • Bad breath – Persistent bad breath or halitosis can signify an infection or dental decay. According to Maven Vets Sutton (, bad breath is one of the most common signs of dental disease in dogs.
  • Loose or discolored teeth – If you notice any loose, broken, or discolored teeth, take your dog to the vet. Your dog may have periodontal disease or a fractured tooth that needs treatment, per Kindred Care Pet (
  • Trouble eating or chewing – Difficulty eating hard food or treats or dropping food while chewing could indicate an oral health issue. There may be damage, infection, or pain in the mouth making it hard for your dog to chew properly.
  • Pawing at the mouth – If your dog seems to be bothered by their mouth and rubs their face or paws at their mouth, they may have tooth pain or discomfort. Have your vet inspect their teeth.
  • Lethargy or behavior changes – Subtle changes in your dog’s energy level or behavior, like less playfulness, could stem from tooth pain or infection.

Don’t delay if you notice any of these symptoms – consult your veterinarian promptly so they can diagnose and treat any dental issues.


In summary, oral health is extremely important for dogs’ overall wellbeing. While daily tooth brushing is the gold standard for preventing plaque buildup and dental disease, it can be challenging for many dog owners to maintain. Dental treats and chews provide a more convenient alternative that still reduces tartar and freshens breath when used regularly. However, they do not provide the same level of dental cleaning as brushing. Veterinary dental cleanings under anesthesia are advisable at least once a year, even for dogs who receive brushing or treats, to fully remove built-up calculus and plaque in hard to reach areas. The best approach is a combination of brushing, dental treats, and professional veterinary cleanings to keep a dog’s teeth and gums healthy. For owners who struggle with tooth brushing, committing to daily dental chews is still beneficial for their dog’s oral hygiene.

In conclusion, giving dogs daily dental treats and chews is recommended as an effective way to improve their oral health, especially for owners who find daily tooth brushing challenging. However, professional veterinary dental cleanings should still be pursued annually as the gold standard. A combination approach is ideal, but regular use of dental treats and chews can still make a meaningful difference in fighting plaque buildup and dental disease when brushing is difficult.


American Veterinary Medical Association. Veterinary Dental Care. Updated in 2021. Accessed on August 9, 2022.

Banfield Pet Hospital. Pet Dental Health. Accessed on August 9, 2022.

PetMD. Dental Care for Dogs. Reviewed by Angie Fenton on August 08, 2022. Accessed on August 9, 2022.

VCA Hospitals. Dog Dental Care. Accessed on August 9, 2022.

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