There are plenty of people out there who think that brushing a dog’s teeth is on at same level of crazy as, say, pushing your pooch in a stroller or dressing her up in a tutu and tiara. But I’m not one of them.
Hear me out: I’m all about letting my dog Charlie be a dog. She’s a Jack Russell terrier mix, so that means trying to chase squirrels up trees, destroying every chew toy she meets, and tracking mud into the house every single day. But all that playing and exploring, coupled with chowing down on her kibble and treats, means that her mouth can get pretty filthy (avoid these 5 terrible ingredients in pet food). So I brush her teeth regularly, just like I brush my own.
It’s not as bizarre as it sounds. “Brushing removes bacteria, which can lead to infection and hard buildup,” says veterinary behaviorist Meredith Stepita, DVM. Over time, that buildup can cause stinky—and painful—tooth decay. Often, older dogs that don’t get their teeth brushed end up needing to have their teeth professionally cleaned by the vet—a pricey procedure that requires anesthesia. But regular sessions with the toothbrush can help keep all that at bay.
My mom’s dog Ricky had such bad breath that he had to have most of his teeth pulled. By the time he was an old man, he only had 8 teeth left, so his tongue actually hung out of his mouth. It was cute but also a little sad, and I knew I didn’t want Charlie to suffer the same gummy fate. So I got into the habit of brushing her teeth when she was around two years old.
By then, she was well past puppyhood—when dogs are more accepting of unfamiliar experiences. Getting her used to having a toothbrush (yup, they make toothbrushes for dogs—the first one I bought had different-sized bristle heads on either side of the brush) in her mouth was a little bit of a challenge, so we started out slow.
Judging from these pictures we took during one of our first brushing sessions, back in 2011, she clearly thought that her toothbrush was a tasty snack. And I guess she wasn’t totally wrong. After all, it was loaded up with delicious, chicken-flavored doggie toothpaste. (Unlike human toothpaste, dog toothpaste is designed to be swallowed.)
Looking back, I could have done a better job of introducing her to this wholly bizarre procedure. Most vets and dog behavior experts agree that you should take baby steps—starting with letting your dog just sniff the toothbrush, then slowly touching it to their mouth, then moving on to brushing. “The small steps help you make more progress than just trying to put the toothbrush in your dog’s mouth while he’s trying to get away,” Stepita says.
But even with our quick dive into brushing, Charlie seemed pretty cool about her new oral hygiene routine. She never tried to run away, and she never showed signs of fear, like pulling her ears back or putting her tail between her legs. Before long, she actually started to get excited whenever I would head over with the toothbrush. (Must be the awesome smell of her toothpaste?)
Over time, I figured out ways to make the maneuvers involved in brushing another creature’s mouth slightly less awkward, too. Charlie is only 10 pounds, so in order to keep her steady, I sit next to her instead of in front of her. I’ll rest my free hand against the far side of her head to give me a bit more leverage and make sure the toothbrush is really scrubbing her teeth, too. It sounds sort of strange, but when you see us in action, it looks pretty natural. Well, as natural as this sort of thing can get.
At 7 years old, Charlie’s pearly whites are still, for the most part, white. And while her breath isn’t exactly minty fresh, (we’re talking about a creature who gobbles up salmon treats and licks her dirty squeaky toys—and other seriously gross things—on a daily basis, here), it’s totally tolerable. In fact, at her last checkup, the vet actually complimented us on how great her teeth looked, especially for her age.
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