Nothing Beats Brushing
by Veronica of ScrappyRat
While some biscuits and chews claim they brush your dog's teeth for you, when it comes to keeping your dog's mouth healthy, nothing can do what actual brushing can. A dirty mouth can lead to tooth loss and even heart valve infections, which can lead to an early death.
A stinky mouth is a far bigger problem than most people think. Gum disease can become a terribly painful abcesses which, untreated, can infect the jaw bone which, again, can lead to death. Canine dentistry is serious, and periodic cleanings by your vet are important but if you make brushing part your dog's routine, you can make these pricey and often anesthesia-requiring visits less freqent and easier on your dog.
You can purchase toothbrushes specially made for dogs, or you can buy an extra soft human toothbrush. Small dogs tend to need brushing most of all since their mouths are often overcrowded, causing food and bacteria to stick between their teeth. For these little guys, a toothbrush made for infants is perfect. Make sure you moisten and rub the bristles to soften them further before you add toothpaste to make sure they haven't hardened from drying between uses.
Dogs have much less durable tooth enamel than we do, an anything but the softest toothbrush can damage it. That's also why you should never use anything but toothpaste made for dogs. Human toothpaste is far too abrasive and contains ingredients that could be dangerous if swallowed. A flavorful toothpaste can be a big help (mine like malt flavor or there's one that's even vanilla flavored).
If your dog isn't used to having his teeth brushed yet, he may be reticent to have a stick stuffed in his mouth and wiggled around (which is essentially the way he perceives it). It's best to introduce the process gradually, letting him lick a bit of the paste off the toothbrush at first, later brushing just for a few seconds, then a bit longer as you progress. This process could take minutes to weeks to complete, depending on your dog.
Most will be fine with brushing after a couple of days of tasting the paste and feeling a couple of quick strokes across the side teeth once a day, unless the dog is particularly skittish or has had a bad experience with brushing. Don't try to hold the dog down, scold him or hold his body still to get the brush in his mouth, it's too scary. Just lift their lips with one hand, and do a very short brush--just about 30 seconds to 1 minute--around the teeth, top and bottom.
Anything you can do is better than nothing, and you want to use a lot of praise and a treat when you're done. You want to makes sure he thinks of all this weirdness as something fun. If your dog is afraid of the toothbrush, reward him for sniffing the toothbrush, then once he's fine with that, let him lick the paste a little, then move to just touching his lips with the tip of the brush for one second, and so on, using his comfort level to know when to move on or back up a little.
Take it step by step. It also helps your dog get used to having his mouth handled if you can catch him when he's calm and relaxed on the couch or wherever. Then, when you pet him like you normally would, you can rub the outside of their lips gently, even touching their teeth now and then. Spend some extra time massaging their paws and your groomer will thank you, too, when it's time to trim their nails.
There's nothing as effective as brushing, really, other than professional cleaning. I've never been to an anesthesia-free cleaning, but you may be able to find one in your area, and it could possibly be an option if your dog's temperament allows it. I'm not fond of knocking my dogs out for the traditional veterinary cleaning, but it's safer than allowing their teeth to go bad.
Chews are definitely fun for your dog and the fact that they increase saliva production while they're being chewed will help break down some of the ick on your dog's teeth, but ultimately brushing is the most thorough cleaning our dogs can get at home.