Begin Pet Toothbrushing With Baby Steps

Toothbrushing for dogs and cats is definitely needed for every individual.

Just as in people, it’s a process best begun early in life.

Special toothpaste is formulated just for pets.  Brushes, too.
Special toothpaste is formulated just for pets. Brushes, too.

We brush our pets’ teeth for the same reason we brush our own. Every moment of every day normal bacteria in our mouths combine food particles with minerals in saliva to produce plaque, a soft material in a matrix, a geometric pattern. If that matrix remains undisturbed for a 24-hour time period it can become hardened, at which point it is called calculus, also called tartar.

Plaque is material that can be brushed away. Calculus, because it has hardened, cannot be. Therefore, the purpose of toothbrushing is to disturb the matrix, the geometric pattern, prior to that crucial 24-hour point. Once disturbed, the matrix must be rebuilt by the bacteria.

Why do dentists suggest that we brush after every meal, two, three, even four times daily? If we brushed perfectly every time that technically wouldn’t be necessary. Suppose, though, that you miss a spot on the upper right after breakfast. Hopefully, you will hit that spot after lunch, but you might miss a place on the lower left. Hitting that spot after supper and again before bedtime minimizes the risk of calculus buildup.

Still, few of us are calculus-free at our every-six-months examinations and cleanings. Therefore, we all need at least a little scaling on those visits.

Our goal with pets’ toothbrushing is to be as consistent as possible for everyday brushing.

Let’s look at the steps to get started. And, let’s start with baby steps.

First, ask your pet’s doctor for the pet toothpaste he recommends. Pet toothpaste is special, and different from “people” toothpaste. It doesn’t foam up, because the bubbles would scare your pet when he inhaled them. Also, it has enzyme action for cleaning.

Then there are the flavors: you might like the malt type (but we don’t recommend it), and we’re sure you wouldn’t be happy with “poultry” or “fish” flavors in your toothpaste.

The last thing you want to do is charge into your pet’s mouth with a toothbrush and scour every tooth on the first day. Instead, establish a positive mental relationship between your pet and his toothpaste. Just like Dr. Pavlov’s dogs, we want your dog to begin to salivate in eager anticipation of every brushing encounter. For at least a week, take your dog to the place you usually give him treats. Have him do the things you normally do before he gets a treat. For us it’s “Sit.” You might have your dog perform several acts prior to receiving his treat. Next, when he would normally get his goodie, instead of a treat have some of his new toothpaste on your finger. He will love the taste, and you can repeat this process several times through the day. Just don’t make a bigger deal out of it than you usually do for a treat.

After he is responding well to tasting toothpaste at treat time, add another step. After he sits, have the toothpaste on your finger and begin to massage the teeth and gums on the labial side, the side closest to the lips. Manipulate just one quadrant of the mouth at each session. He will get that good taste again and you will begin to get him used to feeling something inside his mouth. Do this for another week.

If he seems to respond well to that step, move on to using your finger to massage the teeth and gums on the lingual, or tongue, side of the teeth. Dogs are more likely to resist this step, so don’t force it if it’s not going smoothly. Continue to reinforce the act of massaging the labial surfaces and, at the end, occasionally try the inside of the teeth. That side is less important to brush, as the rough surface of the tongue cleans that surface to some extent.

On the other hand, if finger-massaging the labial surface of the teeth is still drawing resistance from your pet, stick with baby steps. Continue to just work with one or two quadrants of the mouth at each session. Increase the sessions to two per day, if time and pet-patience allow.

After a week or two, or whenever you feel your pet is ready for it, step up to a real toothbrushing experience. Still with baby steps, though. Using your conventional pet toothbrush or a fingerbrush, plus a little pet toothpaste, try brushing just one quadrant of the mouth each day. When the sessions are going particularly well, brush quadrants on opposite sides of the mouth every day or part of the mouth in the morning, part in the evening.

Our eventual goal is to brush all of the teeth once each day, disturbing the matrix the oral bacteria have created so that plaque cannot become hardened into calculus. Daily brushing will greatly extend the time between scalings your veterinarian must perform.

PS: Did you know Dr. Ivan Pavlov had five main research dogs?  Their names were Druzhok (meaning Little Friend), Sultan, Zolotisty, Zhuchka and Tygan (meaning Gypsy)?

PPS: Our dog, Willie, having been conditioned to think of his toothpaste as a treat, likes it so much that he will sit in my lap and lick little bits of it from my finger after each brushing session.

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  1. Thank you so much for taking your time out to write this article and share it with your clients, Dr. Randolph. I can’t wait to try this technique on little Wombat. Wish I could take you wherever we end up, I am going to miss you guys.

    Wombie, Ashley and Chloe

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