Why do dogs and cats need their teeth brushed?

June 29, 2021 - 6 min read

Most pet parents understand that vaccinations, parasite prevention, and other forms of pet wellness care are essential to keeping dogs and cats healthy. But what about dental care? Just imagine how severely your own health and quality of life would suffer if you never brushed your teeth or visited your dentist. It’s no different for our pets.

Plaque, tartar, gingivitis, periodontal disease, and other dental diseases can lead to bad breath, pain, and serious health problems, not just within the mouth but throughout the body. Studies have shown that periodontal disease can lead to systemic inflammation and pathologic changes in the heart, liver, and kidneys.

Since dental care is so essential to a pet’s well-being, let’s take a look at what you can do at home to keep your pet’s teeth clean and what’s involved in professional dental cleaning.

Dog getting teeth brushed

What Can I Do to Keep My Pet’s Teeth Clean?

If your cat or dog’s teeth and gums are in good shape, home dental care can go a long way toward keeping them that way.

Toothbrushing is Best

By far, the best way to take care of your pet’s teeth is to brush them every day. Daily brushing removes plaque, the bacteria-laden goop that sticks to teeth. Over the course of just a few days, plaque will harden into tartar, which can’t be removed with a toothbrush. If you miss a day of brushing here and there, don’t worry, get back on track as soon as you can.

CTA _4

Nose-to-tail pet insurance

Get coverage for all your woofs and meows.

Get great coverage for all your furry family members and enjoy peace of mind with no annual payout limits or pesky hidden fees.

CTA _4

Brushing your pet’s teeth isn’t as daunting as you might think. (Check out this video to see how it’s done.) First, purchase toothpaste designed especially for pets. Your dog or cat will appreciate the pet-friendly flavors. Don’t use human toothpaste that contains fluoride since pets tend to swallow more toothpaste than we do.

Next, put a dab of pet toothpaste on a soft-bristled toothbrush, finger brush, or even a piece of paper towel wrapped around your finger. Start slowly. Lift your pet’s gum and gently dab the toothpaste on one or two teeth. Over the next few weeks, work up to the point where you’re actually brushing the outside surfaces of all your pet’s teeth.

End each session with lots of praise and a treat.

Pet dental supplies are available at most online and brick-and-mortar pet stores.

Other Options for Home Dental Care

Don’t give up if your pet simply won’t stand for having their teeth brushed. Certain dental diets, dental chews, treats, and water additives can all help reduce the accumulation of plaque and/or tartar.

Products that carry the Veterinary Oral Health Council  (VOHC) Seal of Approval have been shown to be effective. While they won’t do as good a job as daily toothbrushing, using VOHC-approved products on a regular basis is certainly better than no dental care at all. And even if your pet does tolerate tooth-brushing, you can still use VOHC-approved products as a supplement.

Talk to your veterinarian about what home dental care options would be best for your four-legged friend.

Happy cat illustration

The Benefits of Home Dental Care for Pets

Not only does taking care of your pet’s teeth at home help keep them healthy, it can also save you a ton of money. Daily toothbrushing and the regular use of VOHC-approved dental care products will delay the need for a professional dental cleaning.

To be safe and effective, pet dental cleanings must be performed under general anesthesia and with veterinary supervision. Those conditions, while completely necessary, make dental cleanings pretty expensive. Costs tend to range from hundreds to even thousands of dollars depending on the severity of a pet’s dental problems.

And even if money isn’t an issue for you, relying solely on professional dental cleanings isn’t ideal. Your pet’s oral and overall health will suffer in between cleanings.

How Do I Know If My Pet Needs a Dental Cleaning?

Even with good home dental care, most pets eventually need professional cleaning. Tartar can develop in hard-to-reach areas between teeth and under the gums, or perhaps you just adopted a dog or cat whose teeth have already been neglected.

Home dental care works best on clean teeth, so check your pet’s mouth regularly to see if they need a dental cleaning. Schedule an appointment with your veterinarian if you notice any of these signs of dental disease in pets:

  • Bad breath

  • Discolored teeth – tartar is usually brown or yellow

  • Red gums that may be puffy or bleed when touched

  • Receding gums

  • Loose, broken, or missing teeth

  • Swollen areas around the face that may rupture and drain pus — a common sign of a tooth root abscess

  • Sneezing and nasal discharge — seen when a tooth root abscess drains into the nasal passages

  • Abnormal drooling

  • Reluctance to chew

  • Weight loss

Cat's face

What Is a Dental Cleaning?

When your veterinarian recommends a dental cleaning (often referred to as a dental prophylaxis), it’s natural to wonder exactly what’s involved. The process starts during your initial office visit, when your vet will ask you questions about your pet’s overall health. This will be followed by a physical examination.

Depending on your pet’s age and health status, the doctor may recommend pre-anesthetic bloodwork. All this helps your vet plan the best way to proceed with anesthesia and gives them an idea of what may be involved in your pet’s dental care. These steps may occur a few days or weeks before the actual dental cleaning.

On the day of the cleaning, the veterinarian or veterinary technician will get your pet ready by:

  • Placing a catheter into your pet’s vein

  • Giving intravenous fluids to maintain your pet’s hydration and blood pressure

  • Using patient monitors and warming devices

  • Giving injectable sedatives, pain relievers, anesthetics, and/or other medications as needed

  • Placing an endotracheal (breathing) tube to protect your pet’s airway from fluid and debris and to administer oxygen and inhalant anesthetics

  • Rinsing your pet’s mouth with an antiseptic

Dog with toothbrush

During the Dental Cleaning Itself

During the cleaning itself, your vet will use hand-held instruments and mechanical scalers to remove plaque and tartar from all surfaces of your pet’s teeth, including under the gums. The teeth are then polished to make them smooth, which slows the return of plaque and tartar. Fluoride treatments and sealants may be applied to help maintain your pet’s dental health.

The veterinarian will then examine your pet’s entire mouth looking for damaged teeth, large pockets under the gums, oral tumors, and any other abnormalities that require additional treatment. Dental x-rays are often needed to fully evaluate a pet’s teeth. Your vet may be able to handle simple problems, like a single tooth that needs to be removed, at the time of the cleaning. More complicated treatments often need to be scheduled for another day or referred to a board-certified veterinary dentist.

Dog drinking water

What Are the Benefits of a Dental Cleaning?

Poor dental health is depressingly common in pets. By the time they’re two years of age, 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have some form of periodontal disease.

Dental cleanings are certainly not simple procedures, but once a dog or cat has developed significant dental problems, there is simply no other way to restore them to health. Left untreated, pets with periodontal disease and other types of dental problems are in pain and at risk of losing teeth and even developing serious problems in distant organs, including the kidneys, liver, and heart.

A Wellness Plan Can Help You Pay for Dental Cleanings

Some pets require dental cleanings one or more times per year. This is often the case for smaller dogs or pets with flat faces (Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, Pugs, and Persian cats, for example) because they have abnormal tooth alignment, which leads to rapid plaque and tartar buildup. Many other dogs and cats do well having their teeth professionally cleaned every two or three years. (Good home dental care between cleanings will mean that your pet needs fewer cleanings over the course of their life.)

If the cost associated with dental cleanings gives you pause, consider purchasing a pet wellness plan — like the ManyPets Wellness Plan — that will help reimburse you for cleanings when your dog or cat needs them. The fact that good wellness policies cover dental cleanings shouldn’t be too surprising: Dental care is essential to pet health.

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Veterinarian, Veterinary Writer, Editor, and Consultant

Dr. Jennifer Coates is a writer, editor, and consultant with experience in veterinary medicine, science, animal welfare, conservation, and communications. She has written for outlets including petMD, Chewy, and ManyPets.