How to train your pet to love tooth brushing
Dental disease is one of the most common conditions that veterinarians diagnose in our canine and feline patients. Besides contributing to bad breath, dental disease can also result in pain and infection, which can cause a pet to become inappetant or ill. The most successful way to prevent dental disease in our pets is the same way we prevent dental disease in ourselves: daily tooth brushing. Although this can sound intimidating, most pets will learn to love tooth brushing with the appropriate training schedule. Even cats can be taught to participate in their own dental care when the training is slow, consistent, and full of positive reinforcement.
Step #1: Start brushing your pet’s teeth as early as possible! Although puppies and kittens may be taught to accept tooth brushing more easily, it is never too late for an animal to learn.
Step #2: Collect the supplies needed. There are many different kits used for pet dental care- some include finger brushes, others include more traditional toothbrushes with soft bristles. Either type of brush can work, depending on the pet. Pet toothpaste often comes in flavors such as poultry (the most popular flavor for both dogs and cats), beef, tuna and vanilla mint. Try out these flavors to see which your pet prefers. These toothpastes are enzymatic, meaning that they will continue to break down plaque on the teeth even after brushing is completed.
Note- do not use human toothpastes in dogs and cats. Animals end up swallowing a significant amount of toothpaste during brushing, and human toothpastes can cause an upset gastrointestinal tract. Also, it is much easier to train pets to love tooth brushing when the toothpaste is flavored like a treat!
Step #3: Determine the best time and location for daily toothbrushing. Animals do much better when there is a routine associated with the task they are learning (this also helps us remember to brush the teeth daily!).
Step #4: At the chosen time and in the chosen location, call your pet to you. Reward them with a small amount of toothpaste on your finger. This will teach them to see the toothpaste as a treat. Repeat this step once daily until your pet readily arrives for the toothpaste. This may require just a couple days for some dogs, but other dogs and most cats may need a couple weeks of training before they are consistent.
Step #5: When the pet arrives for toothpaste, provide it for them on the toothbrush instead of your finger. Allow them to lick it off the toothbrush. Repeat this daily until the pet shows no concerns about the toothbrush. Again, this can take days to weeks, depending on the animal.
Step #6: The next step is to get the pet to accept you touching his/her face while licking the toothpaste. Once this does not surprise the pet anymore, you can lift the upper lip on one side of the mouth to visualize the teeth.
Step #7: When lifting the upper lip on one side of the mouth, you can do a small stroke with the toothbrush and toothpaste. On the next day, do the other side. Continue to increase the time spent brushing, while paying attention to the comfort level of your pet. Make this process positive by praising your animal for good behavior.
Note- it is most important to contact the outer (cheek) side of the upper teeth when brushing an animal’s teeth, as this is where they build up most tartar. This is also the area that is most comfortable for animals to have brushed. You should also be able to brush the outer side of the lower teeth. Do not worry about the insides of the teeth near the tongue and palate. These areas do not build up as much plaque and can be addressed when the animal is under anesthesia for dental cleanings in the future.
Regular toothbrushing is easier to do when your pet enjoys and participates in the process! If your pet will not tolerate tooth brushing, please talk to us about other options to preserve dental health, such as dental diets, chews, and sprays. As always, even with regular toothbrushing, our pets will likely require regular dental cleanings under anesthesia over the course of their lives. The goal with toothbrushing is to decrease the need for these, resulting in less anesthesia time and better overall oral health for your pet.