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How do I brush my dog's teeth?

I've heard that it is good to brush your dog's teeth. How do I do this and how often should it be done?

Brushing your dog's teeth, combined with professional dental cleanings by a veterinarian, is a very important part of maintaining the animal's health. A dog with healthy teeth and gums is more likely to keep its teeth for life, continue to eat hard food, and have less breath odor. In addition, dogs that have a consistent dental health regimen are less likely to develop bacterial infections of the bloodstream. Bacteria from the teeth are known to colonize the valves of the heart, causing a type of heart disease called bacterial endocarditis.

Dogs, especially the smaller breeds, actually require the same kind of care for their teeth as people do for theirs. Smaller breeds tend to acquire a tremendous amount of plaque and tartar on their teeth. This is most likely because they often do not chew on bones and other hard items that help with the mechanical breakdown of plaque and tartar, or eat soft, canned food rather than the hard varieties.

It is important to start brushing your dog's teeth as early in life as possible. Never use human toothpaste, since it contains foaming agents that can cause the dog to vomit if swallowed. Veterinary toothpaste does not contain these foaming agents, so a dog may safely swallow it. Most dogs love the taste of the veterinary toothpaste, which comes in a variety of flavors, including chicken, beef, and malt. (Most pets will try to lick it off the brush before their teeth have been cleaned!) Also available are fluoride sprays and gels that can be applied to the teeth after brushing in order to help prevent tooth decay.

There are many different types of toothbrushes designed for dogs. Some fit over the finger and are called "finger brushes," while others are very long and angled, with a wide brush head. These can be purchased from a veterinarian or a pet store. Some people use a human toothbrush with soft bristles that will not damage the gums.

Use the toothbrush on all the surfaces of your dog's teeth -- especially the back molars -- at least one to two times a day. You'll quickly see results in the dog's breath odor. The long-term benefits to its teeth, gums, and general health, will be rewarding to both you and your pet.