Tooth brushing for dogs & cats

dog toothbrush

Why brush?

Dental disease is very common. Almost all dogs and cats are affected by it by the time they are 3 years of age. The build up of food and bacteria in the mouth can often progress into painful infections.

Teeth brushing is the most effective way to keep your pets teeth clean. When used on clean, healthy teeth, brushing can help prevent or slow the progression of dental disease.

Please note that brushing is only useful for keeping “clean” teeth clean. It targets the “yellow fuzz’ stage (plaque).

If your dog already has dental disease, with a layer of a hard, brown crust (tartar), then brushing will NOT work to remove it. The only way to remove tartar is to have it professionally cleaned under anaesthetic. Most dogs require this procedure every 1-2 years. Once the tartar is removed, brushing can help to prevent further build up.


Will my pet tolerate brushing?

Most dog and cats will tolerate teeth brushing if it is properly introduced with a gradual ‘desensitisation’ program. It is ideal to start at the puppy or kitten, although it can be trained at any age.

WARNING – Know your pet. If your pet is prone to biting, attempted brushing may put your fingers at risk. Teeth brushing is tolerated by most BUT not all pets. Your safety is very important!


What should I use?

Choose your toothbrush:

  • “Finger brushes” are usually the easiest to use. They slip over the finger like a thimble.
  • “Dog toothbrushes” are also available. The handle is a longer and shaped for easier access to those back molars.
  • A soft children’s toothbrush can also be used – but don’t get it mixed up with your kid’s brushes!

Choose your toothpaste:

  • Do NOT use human toothpaste. Dogs do not enjoy the mint or frothiness!
  • Meat flavoured toothpastes are available, and act as a reward.
  • You can use no toothpaste if you find it easier.



Phase 1 – Gum Touching

Find a calm time of the day (such as the evening or after a walk) when you pet normally enjoys a nice pat. Stroke their head and the sides of their face untill they are contented. Now lift the lip a little and gently touch their gum line for a second or two. Give them praise, pats or a small food treat straight away, so that they learn to associated it with good things!

Repeat this process for a few minutes each daily. As they become comfortable with the gum touching, gradually increase the amount you are doing. The goal is to be able to touch the gums all over without distressing your pet. This may take a few days or weeks depending on the individual pet.

Phase 2 – Tooth paste.

Repeat Phase 1, with a little flavoured tooth paste on your finger. Once again slowly build up to the point where you can now massage a pet toothpaste around the teeth and gums.

Phase 3 – Brushing

It is very important to start off slowly with brushing. The canine teeth are usually most accessible. Gently massage the gum line with the brush for a few seconds, and reward. Stop as soon as your pet starts pulling away or becomes irritable. Slowly build this up over the next few days weeks till you can brush all the teeth.

Note – you only need to brush the OUTER surface of the teeth (next to the cheeks). Don’t worry about the inner surface as the tongue tends to clean this pretty well. The major areas of concern are usually the upper canines and the big back teeth.


Brushing should become a routine. Try and brush at round about the same time each day and make sure the routine is always rewarded by pats, encouragement and treats if required.

If you find tooth brushing too difficult, there are other alternatives for preventative care. However, remember that brushing is the cheapest way AND the most effective!


Don’t skip regular dental check ups!

Make sure to get your dog’s teeth checked every 6 months or so by your vet. If the brushing is going well, hopefully we won’t need to do a dental procedure for a while!


Dr Grace Woodward BVSc (Hons 1)