Dogs have no hands to remove trapped pieces of food or debris from between their teeth—and no voice to declare that their mouths taste like death or that their teeth ache when they chew.

Baby Teeth: First Dental Steps

Maintaining good dental health for a dog starts at puppyhood. Puppies lose their baby teeth without much ceremony; these small deciduous teeth are rarely found. However, a retained puppy tooth that does not fall out when the permanent tooth erupts can create problems. Retained teeth should be removed to avoid complications such as a poorly aligned or painful bite, tooth decay or a broken tooth.

Adult Dog Dental Health

Plaque and tartar buildup on dogs’ teeth, causing periodontal disease that leads to severe tooth decay, root absorption, receding gumlines, loss of teeth and bone and abscesses. Bacteria from periodontal disease enter the bloodstream, circulate and take up residence in the kidney or on the leaf–like valves of the heart, causing serious damage to these organs.

Dental cleanings reduce periodontal disease and improve health. The first cleaning should be around age 2, unless your veterinarian finds other problems. Subsequent cleanings will vary with individual dogs, ranging from every six months to every few years.

Break Out That Toothbrush

Brushing your dog’s teeth will decrease plaque buildup and increase time between cleanings. Training your dog for brushing starts by teaching your dog that toothpaste is a treat. (Remember to use canine toothpaste. Dogs do not like mint.) Next, let your dog have the toothpaste treat on a toothbrush. Finally, brush one tooth a day for several days, and then add other teeth to the regimen after the brushing sensation is accepted. It might take weeks, or even months, for your dog to allow a full brushing.

Use veterinary-approved oral rinses if your dog flat-out refuses brushing; squirt the tasty antibacterial liquid over the teeth several times a week. Dental chews are another good way to fight plaque, but make sure you give real plaque-fighting treats–not dog cookies. Ask your veterinarian which dental chews are best for your dog.

Once tartar builds up around the teeth and periodontal disease is evident, tooth extractions may be likely. Thick tartar can mask the severity of the periodontal disease, and even some pristine teeth might have harmful pockets in the gum, with tooth root decay below. Cleanings, along with dental x-rays, are the best way to diagnose, treat and prevent periodontal disease.

When Your Dog Needs More Help

A good oral exam is part of your dog’s annual physical. However, your dog might need a special dental exam if he shows signs such as pain when eating, excessive drooling, a chattering jaw (i.e., when the jaw moves up and down in short bursts as if the dog is cold or trembling), swelling on the face or under the eye, bloody saliva, tooth loss, odiferous breath, grey tartar encrusting a tooth or decreased activity or appetite. Thankfully, oral hygiene in our canine companions is not as complicated as our own, but it cannot be completely ignored. Keeping a close eye on your dog’s oral health will help them live a longer, happier life.