How to prevent canine dental disease and plaque buildup

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How to prevent canine dental disease and plaque buildup - Picture of a husky smiling in a field.

Dental care is an important part of caring for a dog and helps keep their entire body healthy. Canine dental health starts with daily brushing at home to remove plaque from the teeth. If you are a dog owner, read on to learn:

  • How do plaque and tartar form on my dog’s teeth?
  • Can the buildup of tartar and plaque be prevented?
  • What does poor oral hygiene look like in dogs?
  • How do veterinarians diagnose and treat dental disease in dogs?
  • Is brushing my dog’s teeth necessary?

Bad breath in dogs is often the first sign of periodontal disease and is commonly overlooked by owners. Allowing dental disease to progress can lead to other health conditions, such as kidney and liver disease. Alongside brushing your dog’s teeth to help prevent the accumulation of plaque, dental chews and treats can be used between professional dental cleanings with your vet to help maintain your dog’s oral hygiene.

What are plaque and tartar?

The formation of plaque is the result of bacteria buildup on the teeth. Dental plaque is sticky but can be removed by toothbrushing. If the plaque is not removed regularly, it hardens into tartar that appears yellow or brown on a dog’s teeth. Tartar cannot be removed by brushing and requires professional dental cleaning.

Why is plaque prevention so important?

Preventing plaque buildup on your dog’s teeth prevents hard tartar from forming and progressing to more serious forms of dental disease. Dental disease is a common health issue in dogs, affecting around 80% by the age of two. When allowed to progress, dental disease can cause tooth loss, painful dental abscesses, kidney and liver damage, and other health conditions. Your dog’s oral health is important not only for their teeth but also for their entire body.

How can I prevent plaque and tartar buildup on my dog’s teeth?

The prevention of plaque accumulation is easier than removing hardened tartar and treating dental disease. There are a number of ways to remove plaque on your dog’s teeth and help prevent tartar. Brushing their teeth is the most effective way to remove dental plaque, but other methods can be used in addition to brushing to improve dental health.

Regular brushing

Brushing a dog’s teeth is by far the best way to remove plaque. Daily brushing is best, but brushing at least two to three times a week can help prevent tartar formation. Dog owners can use a finger brush, pet toothbrush, a soft-bristled human toothbrush, or a damp washcloth to scrub the teeth clean. Praise, treats, and tasty pet toothpaste can help dogs tolerate or even enjoy the brushing process.

“It’s common for pet owners to buy a special dog toothbrush and paste, but never establish a habit for daily brushing,” says Vetster veterinarian Dr. Jo Myers. “Sometimes I’ll jokingly remind them that toothbrushes don’t work when you leave them in the drawer.” You can help your dog create a positive association with brushing their teeth by using their favorite treats and treating toothbrushing sessions like a fun game. Avoid using human toothpaste because it can lead to digestive upset when swallowed and may also contain xylitol, an ingredient toxic to dogs.

Dental treats and food

Some dog treats and dry food are shaped to help remove plaque from your dog’s teeth as they chew. Some also contain ingredients to help freshen your dog’s breath. However, bad breath is a common sign of dental disease that needs to be treated rather than simply covered up with a dental treat.

Not all dental chews and foods work as advertised. For effective products, only give food and treats with the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval, as these are tested thoroughly and shown to work as stated. These products are meant to be used with daily toothbrushing and are not a replacement for brushing or professional dental cleanings. These products do not remove tartar once plaque has hardened, so they’re best used either before tartar forms or after dental cleaning to delay the accumulation of new plaque and tartar.

Chew toys

Many chew toys work similarly to dental treats and dry food by scraping plaque off of your dog’s teeth. Some chew toys are specially designed and shaped to help remove dental plaque and help keep teeth clean. Products that carry the VOHC seal of approval have been scientifically proven to be effective and the best dental chew toys to use.

Dental water additives, sprays, and other products

Dental sprays, powders, wipes, gels, and water additives help target plaque-causing bacteria in the mouth to help prevent plaque formation. While they can help by reducing the bacteria in the mouth, these types of dental products do not remove plaque that has already formed on the teeth and do not prevent 100% of plaque formation. Some gels and sprays are meant to be used directly on the teeth before brushing. Always use a product with the VOHC seal of approval and follow the directions closely.

How do I know if my dog has poor dental health?

Dental disease is so common in dogs that many symptoms, such as bad breath, are seen as normal. Other symptoms of canine dental disease include:

  • Yellow or brown buildup on the teeth
  • Inflamed gums
  • Loose or broken teeth
  • Favoring one side of the mouth
  • Excessive drooling
  • Blood in the mouth or saliva

Healthy teeth appear white and shiny without yellow or brown buildup. Foul-smelling breath is never normal and is often the first sign of dental issues.

How do veterinarians diagnose and treat a buildup of plaque and tartar?

Veterinarians can identify the presence of plaque and tartar through an oral exam. However, a full dental exam under anesthesia and dental X-rays are necessary to diagnose the extent of dental disease. Anesthesia is generally very safe for the majority of dogs, and preanesthetic screening tests further minimize the risk. Anesthesia-assisted dental cleanings are far safer and more thorough than nonanesthetic dentals. X-rays are used to examine teeth below the gumline, allowing a veterinarian to examine the entire mouth closely. Professional cleaning is necessary to safely remove plaque from below the gumline where brushing cannot reach it. In addition, it is the only way to remove all the tartar buildup on the teeth. Even dogs who have their teeth brushed daily at home benefit from professional dental cleanings.

For dogs with periodontal disease or tooth decay, additional treatments may be needed, such as tooth removal and surgery. Other tooth-sparing procedures, such as root canals, are available with board-certified veterinary dentists.

Do I need to brush my dog’s teeth?

Brushing is the best way to remove plaque and promote oral health in dogs between professional cleanings. Removing plaque through brushing and cleanings prevents tartar buildup and more advanced forms of dental disease. Other methods of removing plaque buildup, such as dental treats and toys, are not nearly as effective as brushing but can help slow the accumulation of plaque on the teeth when used with frequent toothbrushing. Preventing dental disease is much easier, safer, and cheaper than treating it. Dogs can be trained to tolerate or enjoy brushing at home when done routinely and paired with tasty treats and praise. If you would like advice on how to brush your dog’s teeth effectively or you’d like to discuss your dog’s oral health, you can talk to a veterinary professional in an online virtual care appointment.

FAQ - How to prevent canine dental disease and plaque buildup

How do you prevent tartar buildup in dogs?

Tartar forms when plaque is not regularly removed from the teeth and hardens. Brushing your dog’s teeth with a pet toothbrush, soft-bristled human toothbrush, finger brush, or damp washcloth is the best way to remove sticky plaque from the teeth. Once tartar forms, it cannot be removed by brushing and requires professional dental cleaning.

How do I get plaque off my dog’s teeth?

The best way to remove plaque is with regular brushing. You can use a finger toothbrush, a soft human toothbrush, a pet toothbrush, or even a damp washcloth to gently scrub the teeth clean. If the tooth buildup is a hard yellow or brown substance, it is tartar and needs to be removed by a professional.

Why does plaque build up on my dog’s teeth so quickly?

Plaque forms when bacteria in the mouth mix with saliva and food particles to form a sticky film on the teeth. Just like with people, plaque needs to be removed daily from your dog’s teeth to keep their teeth and gums healthy.

How do I keep my dog’s teeth plaque-free?

Daily brushing is the best way to remove plaque from the surface of the teeth. Dental treats and toys can be used alongside brushing to slow plaque formation even more. However, brushing only removes plaque to the gumline. Regular professional cleanings are required to remove dental plaque from under your dog’s gums to keep them healthy and prevent gum disease.