Sweet, brown lab puppy with a toothbrush in his mouth.

Do Dogs Really Need Dental Care?

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Have you ever wondered if your dog needs to have his teeth checked? You probably take him to the vet at least once a year for his shots and check-ups, but some people do not realize that dogs need to go to the dentist too!

Just like people, a dog’s teeth and gums can have problems which can turn into life-threatening infections. Keeping a dog’s teeth strong and intact is critical to their health and well-being. Without the ability to chew well, a dog could suffer from poor appetite which could lead to nutritional deficiencies.

Like humans, dogs should have periodic dental exams for good oral health. This is especially true as dogs reach middle age because their teeth will have more tartar build-up, and may also become weaker as they age and become more prone to breaking.


Do Dogs Need to Have Their Teeth Cleaned?

The Myth

When I was growing up, I remember people saying that dogs only need to chew on a bone to keep their teeth clean. We had a really sweet dog named Skipper who went to the vet periodically but probably not the dentist. Somehow, he survived without major health problems.

But I do know that what I learned as a kid, is now considered to be a myth. Bones and other chew toys can help clean a dog’s teeth but they are not a substitute for professional cleaning. Additionally, cooked bones, which people sometimes think are safe to give to their dogs, can splinter and pierce the GI tract and can also break teeth due to their hardness. However, large, raw bones can be okay and can actually help clean a dog’s teeth. (Note that smaller chicken bones and pork chops are not good as they can have sharp points or get wedged in a dogs mouth or throat.)

Some dog owners make reference to dogs in the wild who do not have access to vets or dentists. But that is a lot like comparing modern-day humans to cavemen and their diets. Cavemen lived on average to be 30-35 years old (The Truth About The Caveman Diet, Psychology Today), so I am not sure that comparison is useful.

What Dentists Recommend for Canine Dental Care

According to most vets, ideally, a dog should have its teeth cleaned annually just like humans. See this great article by embracepetinsurance.com. Most owners, however, probably do not follow this best practice until their dogs reach 6 to 7 years old. And that is usually because their vets are beginning to notice dental health issues. In most cases, this may be okay, especially if you have been brushing your dog’s teeth periodically and giving him dental chews, chewy toys, or raw bones.

One reason that dog owners may not have their dog’s teeth cleaned annually is due to the cost and need to put their pooch under general anesthesia. This is because dogs would not be able to tolerate a full cleaning if fully awake.

Personally, I am not crazy about the idea of my dog having the equivalent of oral surgery every time she needs to have her teeth cleaned. And it is very expensive! It can range anywhere from $400 to $1,400 depending on how much dental work needs to be done.

But I am also aware that dogs can develop severe problems such as periodontal disease, cracked teeth, abscesses, cavities, among other things that can affect not only their oral health but systemic health as well. A dog with painful gums or broken teeth may shy away from eating and become malnourished. So, dogs really do need dental care.

How to Provide Your Dog with Dental Care

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Brushing Your Dog’s Teeth

I will be the first to admit that I struggle to brush my dogs teeth on a regular basis. I am lucky to get it done once a month. However, vets recommend that you brush your dog’s teeth daily if possible. Even once a week is really good. Be sure to use a toothpaste made for dogs. Do not use human toothpaste, as it is toxic when swallowed! Also, canine toothpaste will taste good to your dog and not harm him. You can use rubber finger brushes or get small, long tooth brushes to apply toothpaste and help scrub.

My dogs are not so fond of the stash of toothbrushes I bought for them, but they do tolerate the rubber finger brushes since they are used to my hands touching their face and mouth. They also really like the taste of toothpaste which has a pleasant flavor. Chewy has great toothpaste, Vet’s Best Enzymatic Dog Toothpaste, as well as other great dental supplies. This toothpaste tastes like banana, is easy to squeeze from the tube, and my dogs really like it! It gives them a clean, sweet breath, and does not hurt them when they swallow it.

Chewy also has Nylabone Finger Brushes which are flexible, durable, and re-usable. They often have sales and this product qualifies for savings with autoship. If your dog will allow you, the long Vetoquinol dual toothbrushes are really good as well and can do a better job. Unfortunately, my dogs are not as happy with the toothbrushes.

Dental Products

Other products you can give your dog for dental care:

  • Raw bones
  • Chew toys
  • Dental chews
  • Dry kibble or therapeutic diets
  • Water additives

Chew toys with hard ridges help clean the tartar ad plaque build up on your dog’s teeth. Raw bones are actually good for this as they have some give and do not splinter, unlike cooked bones. Hard rubber chews are the best. Avoid hard plastic bones, hooves, and antlers as they can crack your dog’s teeth. See my recommended products page for my favorite chew toys.

Personally, I think dry kibble is the best food for dogs since it helps to remove tartar. I also give my dogs safe chew toys. I have not tried the water additives or therapeutic diets since my dog’s teeth are okay for now. But these types of products provide enzymatic ingredients to help clean teeth. Dental chews are helpful as well due to their cleaning ability, but my dogs will throw up if I give them too many in a week.

How do I know if my dog needs a dental appointment?

If your dog suddenly stops eating or playing with chew toys, he may have a dental problem. Early signs are:

  • Bleeding gums
  • Broken tooth
  • Really bad breath
  • Not eating well
  • Plaque or tarter build-up or dark, yellow teeth
  • Eating on one side of the mouth
  • Bloody saliva or blood on chew toys
  • Not wanting you to pet his head
  • Whining when he eats
  • Swelling or lumps in the mouth

If any of the above happens consistently, you should make an appointment with your vet as soon as possible. Your dog could have a serious dental problem that could escalate if not taken care of.

What happens if you don’t take care of your dog’s teeth?

Serious Canine Dental Problems that Can Arise

Without regular dental care, you might not notice seemingly small problems that can escalate:

  • Broken teeth
  • Cavities
  • Abscesses
  • Unerupted Teeth
  • Enamel defects
  • Gum disease

Any of these canine dental health issues can develop and become serious health problems if left untreated. Unerupted teeth are teeth that have not pushed through the gumline, which should be surgically removed. This seems to be more common in small dog breeds.

Additionally, your dentist may notice small lumps or bumps that could be malignant. Oral cancer can quickly become fatal and is often hard to catch in the early stages. So, any additional preventative care may help ward off terminal cancer.

Regular Dental Care Can Resolve Issues

My sister, Judy, has two small dogs, Mini and Gia, who are very prone to dental problems. She told me that smaller dogs generally have more issues (probably due to having small mouths and teeth). They have both had several cleanings over the past few years and they are only 5 and 8 years old. The older dog, Gia has had 7 tooth extractions due to infections. Without dental care, her health would have been at risk. Fortunately, due to excellent dental care, this little sweet pooch remains very healthy and still has enough good teeth to eat!

Small brown dog recovered after tooth extraction
Gia doing well after dental work. Photo by Judy Swayne.

Last year Judy noticed a big bump near Mini’s mouth under her eye and Mini seemed to be having some pain. She took her to the vet and they discovered a serious abscess from a broken tooth that required surgery. Mini is fine now but if my sister had not noticed the lump, the infection could have spread and caused serious problems.

Due to Judy’s excellent care and diligence, both dogs remain happy and healthy and have great appetites!

Small brown and white dog recovered after dental surgery.
Mini recovered from dental surgery. Photo by Judy Swayne.

Final Thoughts

Do the best you can to provide preventative dental care for your furry family members. Try to brush their teeth weekly or at least monthly as possible. Provide them with safe chewy toys or raw bones. Be sure to keep up with their annual vet visits and always ask your vet if they need dental care. For other important tips about general well-being and health tips, be sure to see my post, Everything You Need to Know About Adopting a Rescue Dog.

I am not a huge advocate of annual teeth cleaning unless your dog has had a history of dental problems. But I do think that older dogs should have cleanings at least every couple of years once they have reached 7 or 8 years old.

Additionally, do your own preventative checks and look for lumps or bumps. Make sure there are no swellings or broken teeth. And pay attention to your dog’s playing and eating habits. Good dental care will help your dog live a long healthy life.