The Importance of Dog Dental Care · The Wildest

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Does Your Dog Need a Dentist?

NYC’s top veterinary dentist on bad breath, dental disease and brushing your dog’s teeth daily

by Marisa Meltzer
22 December 2023
Happy dog with teeth visible, blue sky background
Natallia Vintsik / Adobe Stock

Confession: I tried to brush my dog’s teeth just once. She’s a Bulldog with tiny, crooked, crowded teeth – at least when I get a glimpse of them. On the day I tried to brush them, she wouldn’t open her mouth – not when I was holding a torture device, aka a dog toothbrush, in hand. Not if I stroked her chin, not for peanut butter and not, as a last-ditch effort, if I made strange dolphin noises. I couldn’t bear to subject her to it again. Instead, I use an oral additive in her water and hope that’s enough.

So do I even need to try again and brush my dog’s teeth? “The short answer is only the ones you want to save,” says Dr Daniel T Carmichael, a veterinarian and board-certified veterinary dentist who practices at Animal Medical Center in NYC and The Veterinary Medical Center of Long Island. “But a more complete answer is periodontal disease is the most common disease in dogs, affecting 85 percent over the age of three.” The best treatment is preventing the bacterial plaque from accumulating on your dog’s teeth, and the gold standard is tooth brushing – daily. The next best thing is professional dog teeth cleaning.

How to brush a dog’s teeth

No, you don’t need a special brush – any soft-bristled toothbrush is fine. A breed like a Greyhound might need something longer and a dog like a Pug might benefit from a child’s brush. You don’t really need toothpaste, either. “The brush will do 95 percent of the work,” Dr Carmichael says. “Most of the toothpaste is nothing more than flavouring.” 

Ideally, start them as puppies or young dogs. “Get them used to the process. As you’re stroking them, lift up their lips and look at their teeth,” says Dr Carmichael, adding that it helps to go slowly and take breaks. Once the outside surfaces of the teeth are exposed, brush them in circular motions. Say you’ve adopted an older dog; they may have pre-existing dental issues or sensitivity, or just hate having a brush in their mouth. In that case, go to your vet for an oral examination and potentially a professional dental treatment.

Professional dental cleanings for dogs

Professional dental cleaning requires general anaesthesia, which might sound like a lot for a cleaning. “Think about a baby with a mouthful of cavities. We understand that a dental visit is a drag, but our poor pets don’t know that – it is kind of torturing them,” says Dr Carmichael. An average dog teeth cleaning treatment would include a good cleaning and examination of all 42 teeth; a periodontal probe to identify disease, lesions, tumours or broken teeth; and a full set of X-rays. The vet will extract any teeth that are severely diseased. Most dogs can get away with one professional dental treatment a year, though it’s totally individual. Small dogs tend to suffer from more dental problems than larger breeds.

During the dental procedure, your vet will likely perform tooth scaling to remove plaque and tartar from your dog’s gum, and then polish. The way your dog’s breath smells after a teeth cleaning is how fresh your dog’s breath should smell all the time. “Bad breath is not normal in a dog,” says Dr Carmichael. “If you notice your dog’s breath is getting worse and it's not from something they ate, it’s dental disease.” For fans of Greenies, they’re vet-approved as effective dental treats.

Avoid products that injure dog teeth

What’s perhaps more important to your pup’s dental health is what to avoid. “I am up to tens of thousands of lost teeth now on account of nylon bones and deer antlers – I can go to a pet store and purchase those in the dental care aisle,” says Dr Carmichael. Also on the skip list are cow hooves and real bones – basically anything as hard as or harder than a tooth. He recommends sticking with tough rubber toys like the ones from Kong. Another common scourge is the tennis ball. Combine the fuzz with sand or grit from dirt and it turns into a grinder that can wear teeth down. “Fetch on a Sunday is fine, but I don't recommend it as a pacifier,” says Dr Carmichael.

These sobering warnings about dog oral health scared me straight, so I bought a child’s toothbrush and resolved to try to brush my Bulldog’s teeth again. Not today; she looks so peaceful. But tomorrow… 

Marisa Meltzer

Marisa Meltzer has contributed to The New York Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and is the author of This Is Big: How the Women Who Founded Weight Watchers Changed the World (and Me). She lives in New York City with her dog Joan.

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