Gemma Gaitskell
Dr Gemma Gaitskell (BVetMed MSc MRCVS, Royal Veterinary College, London)
Puppy Toothbrush

As science progresses pet dogs are now living longer than ever, and just as with people it is important to keep their teeth in good condition to ensure they can live a happy and healthy life. Poor dental hygiene is often overlooked, and apart from smelly breath and discomfort for the dog can lead to more serious, permanent problems in the mouth, as well as other health problems.

Ideally, dental care should be started from a young age, so dogs become used to having their mouth touched and become accustomed to brushing, otherwise this can be a stressful experience. The key to good oral hygiene in dogs is consistency and establishing a regime whilst also selecting products designed to help with oral hygiene that are proven to be effective in scientific studies.

Dog Dentition

Healthy Teeth & Gums

Healthy Teeth & Gums

Although there are some similarities dogs’ teeth are adapted for a more carnivorous diet than humans. Just like babies, puppies are born with no teeth and at around 4 weeks old their milk or ‘deciduous’ teeth start to erupt.

Adult or permanent teeth then replace these when they are a little older, usually by the time a dog is 7 months old, but the exact age at which these adult teeth appear is breed dependent. An adult dog should have four different types of teeth. All play a different, but important role:

Types of Adult Dog Teeth

  • Incisors: These are the small teeth at the front of the mouth, they are used for scraping food off bones and grooming.
  • Canines: Canines are the large pointy teeth which are located just next to the incisors at the front of the mouth. They are used for biting and grasping objects. In dogs, these are much more developed than in humans.
  • Premolars: Premolars are found immediately behind the canines, they look irregular and get gradually larger the further back in the mouth they are. They are used for cutting, tearing and chewing.
  • Molars: These are the largest teeth in a dogs mouth, which are at the very back. They have a flatter appearance than the premolars and are predominantly used for grinding and chewing food before it is swallowed.

How Many Teeth Do Dogs Have?

In total, a normal puppy should have 28 deciduous or milk teeth and a normal adult dog should have 42 permanent or adult teeth. Puppies' teeth are usually much sharper than adult dogs' teeth, which allows them to chew more effectively, despite not having as much strength.

Consequences of Poor Oral Hygiene


Excessive Tartar

Dirty teeth and poor oral hygiene in dogs can have several knock on effects to a dog’s health and quality of life. These can present in a number of ways and some typical signs of problems in the mouth include:

  • Smelly breath, called halitosis.
  • Irritability, especially around the mouth or a change in temperament.
  • An unusual fussiness around food and signs discomfort whilst eating, such as using only one side of the mouth, avoidance of hard foods, swallowing without chewing.
  • Dribbling more than usual; signs of blood in the mouth.
  • Sensitivity when opening or closing the mouth and an unwillingness to do so.
  • Weight loss over longer periods of time.

There are also some conditions and diseases which can cause knock on effects in the mouth. It is therefore important to differentiate these from primary problems with oral health and rule out any other diseases. If a dog shows any of the above signs it is important that is examined by a veterinarian who will be able to establish if the primary problem is in the mouth or whether the dog is suffering from another condition.

How to Keep Your Dog's Teeth Clean and Healthy

Dental Dog Chews

Dental Dog Chews

In order to get a dog used to teeth brushing and keep their teeth in good condition from the beginning it is advisable to start from a young age. Prevention is always better than cure. There are several ways which you can help to keep your pups teeth as clean as possible as part of a day-to-day regime. These fall into two different categories: Active and Passive care.

The following approaches include both ‘active’ (brushing and mouth washes) and ‘passive’ (dental diets and chews) methods to help keep a dogs’ teeth clean:


Brushing is the mainstay to ensuring good dental hygiene in dogs. To achieve the best results a dogs teeth should be brushed or cleaned every day. However, brushing can be complicated and not all dogs will tolerate it, especially if they are not accustomed in the correct way from a young age. It is important to start getting a dog used to the process a little at a time. Some basic steps which should be followed to introduce a dog to teeth brushing are:

Tips for Brushing Your Dog's Teeth

  1. The first step is getting them used to having their mouth and lips touched.
  2. Once a dog is comfortable with having its mouth and lips touched toothpaste can be rubbed onto their teeth and gums with a finger.
  3. A cotton bud can then be used to rub toothpaste onto the mouth as an intermediate stage before introducing a toothbrush.
  4. A toothbrush should only be used after a puppy has got all of its adult teeth, as before this, their mouth can be sensitive. The toothbrush should be appropriate for the dog’s size and should not be too hard. As a general rule an adult size toothbrush can be used for large and medium dogs, a children’s one for medium to small dogs and for very small and toy breeds it is recommendable to use a specially designed dog toothbrush for small dogs.
  5. It is important to start with short sessions and gradually increase the time spent brushing.

Doggy Toothpaste

If using toothpaste it is important to use one which is produced specifically for dogs, as they tend to swallow the toothpaste and human toothpastes contain chemicals, such as fluoride, which can be toxic if large amounts are swallowed over a long period of time. Any veterinarian will be happy to help demonstrate the process if you are unsure how to get started. If there is any risk of being bitten do not attempt brushing.

Mouth Washes or Gels

There are numerous different products which are sold as dog mouth washes or cleaners, but the most effective ones are based on a substance called chlorhexidine. Chlorhexidine acts by killing bacteria and also helping to minimise the build-up of more plaque when used on a regular basis. It is also very safe and stable compound and it does not cause any harm if a dog swallows it. Gels or mouth washes can be applied using a finger, or with cotton bud, using this to gently rub them onto the gums or alternatively with a syringe, although this is the least effective form of application.

For maximum efficacy it is important the concentration of chlorhexidine in the product is correct – this ideal concentration is 0.12% – and products containing a concentration much lower this will have limited effectiveness. Other ingredients which may be found in dog mouthwashes and gels and that can be helpful in preventing plaque formation are zinc, which is antibacterial and vitamin C (ascorbic acid).

Dental Diets

There are several different ways in which dry dog foods specifically marketed as dental diets can help to reduce plaque build-up compared to other dry dog foods. These range from the use of a fibrous coating on kibble, which has a mechanical action to the inclusion of enzymes in the food which act against bacteria. However, it is important to look at the testing behind a specific diet to ensure that any claims that it is indeed a dental diet have been proven to be effective in properly designed studies.

The Raw Diet for Dental Purposes

There are also some advocates of the raw meaty bone diet for dental health, however, these types of diets have other risks associated with them, such as intestinal blockages, broken teeth, digestive tract infections and risk of human infection due to bacteria that may be present on raw meats, which on the whole, outweigh the benefits to the teeth and are not recommended.

Dental Dog Chews

Saliva is a protective mechanism in the mouth, helping to preserve the teeth. Chewing itself promotes saliva production, which is beneficial to oral health. There are many different types of chews available to buy for dogs but those which have a specific benefit to dental cleanliness and studies which back up this type of claim are much fewer. Things which can affect the effectiveness of a chew are the shape, the texture and whether it contains added ingredients, such as sodium tripolyphosphate and zinc sulphate, which help to reduce calculus formation.

Other additives, such as eucalyptus oil and green tea extract can help combat bad breath and have been shown to reduce levels of certain types of bacteria. Chews should ideally be flexible and pliable and not as hard as tooth enamel itself. Those which are too hard, such as bones, hooves and rawhide, which is knotted or hard pressed, can cause teeth to break and, ultimately, cause more harm than good.

Healthy Lifestyle & Diet

In addition to the techniques mentioned above for dental care, ensuring that your dog is otherwise healthy and has a healthy balanced diet for its age, activity level and breed, providing it with an optimum nutrition is also important.

The Key to Good Doggy Dental Hygiene

Looking after a dogs’ teeth and mouth is an important part of responsible pet ownership and should be approached from the start of a dog’s life. Ensuring that it becomes part of a regular regime is key to getting a puppy or dog used to having their mouth touched and their teeth brushed. Techniques for keeping teeth clean have also been shown to be much more effective when used on a regular basis.

Although some dogs may be resistant to having their teeth brushed or mouthwashes applied many tolerate them very well. A gentle and gradual introduction of these techniques with positive reinforcement and reward is key to ensuring that they are not perceived by a dog as an unpleasant experience.

There are countless products available claiming to beneficial to a dog’s oral hygiene, but it is important to study the composition of these products and the studies behind them which validate whether they are truly effective. Remember that your veterinarian will always be happy to provide guidance and advice on techniques and products if you are unsure.