5 Ways to Keep Your Dog’s Teeth Clean

The best thing you can do for your dog is be proactive about their overall health – and part of that is by helping keeping your dog’s teeth nice and clean to PREVENT dental disease. Now I will say – you might do everything and still end up needing to do professional dental cleanings on a regular basis – genetics play a pretty big role when it comes to dental health. But I’d like you to think of how bad the teeth would have been if you had done NOTHING – regardless of if you still need to do dentals yearly for your pup. Our goal is HEALTH, and prioritizing wellness over avoiding a situation (like anesthesia) completely.

Veterinary Oral Health Council Seal Example

I know you want to get into the nitty-gritty of dental disease prevention, but we can’t really talk about that unless you know about the Veterinary Oral Health Council (or VOHC). Most people have no idea that they exist – but basically what the VOHC are is a third party verification for JUST veterinary dental products. If a dental product has the VOHC Seal that means it has gone through some type of clinical trial proving that the product works for either plaque or tartar prevention/removal.

So what are the BEST ways to keep your pup’s teeth clean?


Using a water additive is probably one of the easiest ways to inhibit bacterial growth and plaque formation. Basically all you do is purchase the concentrated liquid, and then dilute it according to instructions into your dog’s water bowl. Sooooo easy right?

Water additives for plaque control in dogs - dog drinking water

However it is also one of the most controversial – this is because dogs don’t consistently drink the same amount of water day-in and day-out. So dosing is hard – any herbal, or supplements added need to have a large margin or error… Because if a dog exercises more or it is hot they may drink MORE water, and if they eat canned or fresh food they may drink LESS. And because of this variability it makes it hard to really make sure that a pet will get the right amount of the compound in order to be both effective AND not be toxic. And this ignores the fact that certain medical conditions (like kidney disease) could cause a pet to drink MORE water, and thus MORE of the compounds within the water additive while already having a compromised system.

However if you are looking to add on a water additive to your pup’s diet there are a couple things to look out for…

  1. Avoid added colors – There is no reason that your pup’s dental health needs to have any of those items in it. Your dog doesn’t care if their water is “blue tinted” – that coloring is only there for your benefit. OH
  2. Avoid artificial preservatives – These are ingredients like BHA, BHT, EDTA, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, and Propylene Glycol. There are natural preservatives that can be used in the place of artificial preservatives.
  3. Avoid products with Xylitol – though this is an approved addition for water additives in smaller quantities, in higher doses xylitol can be very toxic to dogs. This ingredient used to be very common in water additives years ago, but is much less common now.


HealthymouthTM dog::Essential. This product combines herbs, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals (Zinc) to reduce plaque accumulation in dogs. The only downside I find to this product is that it can only be purchased directly through the product website.


VETRISCIENCE Laboratories- Perio Support, Dental Health Powder – This product is actually a food additive! You add the powder to your dog’s regular diet, and it functions as a probiotic and helps promote good bacteria within the mouth. The clinical trials done by the company show a 20% decline in plaque and tartar in comparison to placebo.

Teef! Drinkable Prebiotic Powder – This product controls tartar and plaque by promoting good bacteria within the mouth, rather than bad bacteria. The product has undergone clinical trials to support their claim, however they have not applied for the VOHC Seal.


Oral Rinse for dogs for plaque control

The use of sprays and rinses is largely looked at as an alternative to using a water additive because you have more control over the “dose” given to your dog than if you used a water additive. There are many different types of sprays and rinses on the market… I find that they usually fall into three categories – one is using minerals like Zinc to promote gum healing, the second is by using an antiseptic like alcohol or chlorhexidine in order to basically disinfect the teeth/mouth, and the third using herbs and antioxidants to promote gum healing.

In general when you are looking at dental “rinse” products I would shy away from others that contain alcohol – just because I have found over the years that they are less tolerated in dogs than Zinc-based or Herbal Products. Otherwise I would similarly avoid added artificial colors and preservatives like I just spoke about with water additives.


HealthymouthTM dog::Essential Oral Mouth Spray. This product combines herbs, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals (Zinc) to reduce plaque accumulation in dogs. The only downside I find to this product is that it can only be purchased directly through the product website.


Sodium Hexametaphosphate for plaque control in dogs - beagle eating kibble

I want to get this out of the way right off the cuff here – your dog’s kibble does not prevent dental disease UNLESS it labeled, on the packaging that it does so. Regular kibbled diets actually provide no “scrubbing” action to the teeth at all, when chewed on, kibbles shatter – like a potato chip. In comparison to wet diets though there is some evidence that wet diets may get stuck between teeth more than dry diets, 

Now there are prescription diets that are manufactured in particular ways to actually promote a scrubbing motion on the teeth. For example the Hill’s t/d is manufactured as a GIANT kibble, that is basically pumped with air – creating this “puff” of interlocking fibers. As a dog crunches into the kibble those fibers actually partially stay together, providing a “scrubbing” motion to the tooth, similar to if you give your pup a chew.

Non-prescription diets that are labeled on the package to promote dental health usually do not have the mechanical mechanism like the prescription diets – instead they contain other additives – like Sodium Hexametaphosphate – which is a calcium chelator – which is a fancy way of saying that it binds calcium within the saliva so that it cannot form with plaque to create tartar. Though Sodium Hexametaphosphate has been shown to reduce plaque and tartar by up to 80% in dogs – there have been no long-term published studies looking at safety in dogs. Other common additives are antimicrobial such as enzymes and the antiseptic chlorhexidine.



What I mean by this is that – not all chews are created equal. There are two considerations you want to think about when choosing the “perfect” chew – the first is does it have the VOHC seal? A VOHC seal is a third party accreditation that looks at effectiveness of different dental products for removing tartar and maintaining dental health. So the addition of a VOHC seal gives more credibility to claims from companies saying that their product actually helps with dental health or not. VOHC seals will also specify if a product is labeled for plaque removal, or if it offer some tartar control as well.

The second thing to consider – is the chew the right size/shape/texture to promote dental health. 

What I mean by this is that the ideal size of a chew is something your pup can’t choke on, and that if swallowed/ingested breaks down enough to not cause a blockage. Now I should mention – you should supervise your dog when they get chews – ask any chew can become a choking hazard.

The ideal shape – you want something that is flat and wide – the reasoning for this is that our pup’s entire “force” behind their chew is going to be focused on this object. You want that force to be distributed over several teeth. This distributes the pressure, making it less likely that any one tooth will fracture.

Follow these 5 rules to picking out chews - Labrador chewing on bone

Lastly the ideal texture – you want something that has a bit of “give” to it. Ideally something slightly squishy, not too hard, not too soft – just right. This is because again the dogs will put the entire “force” of their chew on this object – the force of chewing will either cause the chew or the tooth to break. And honestly I’d rather it be the chew than my dog’s teeth that is broken apart. Veterinary dental specialist have come up with the “Five Rules of Thumb” to make selecting an appropriate chew easier.

  1. You want to be able to indent the surface with your finger nail.  Surface has some “give” to it.
  2. “Knee Cap Rule”: If you hit yourself in the knee with the object and it hurts, it’s probably too hard/heavy for your dog.
  3. “Hammer Rule”: If you can drive a nail with the product, don’t allow your dog to chew on it.
  4. Also avoid objects with abrasive surfaces like Tennis Balls and certain types of Frisbees.
  5. If you cannot flex or break the product with your bare hands, it’s probably best to avoid it.

AVOID Long, thin and hard chews that are the same width as their largest upper pre-molar (aka the carnassial tooth) will focus the entire force of the chew on that one tooth. And when this happens over and over, or at just the right angle – it can cause this tooth to fracture, and break. 

If this happens – depending upon the type of fracture and your budget – you will need to either remove the tooth entirely or have a root canal performed. To remove the carnassial tooth is NOT easy – it requires a surgical flat, grinding of attached bone, sectioning the tooth into three pieces, then each piece is elevated. And if you want to think of your pocketbook for a bit here – this procedure for just the extraction can cost upwards of a thousand dollars. So PLEASE – don’t give your pup thin, round long chews (good examples of this can be rolled rawhides, antlers, marrow bones, or rolled bully sticks).

Fractured Carnasal Tooth
Fractured carnassial tooth in the dog.


I’m sure you knew this one was coming but – you need to brush your dog’s teeth. I know it’s hard, I know your dog doesn’t like it – but if you want to prevent dental disease and keep dental cleanings to a minimum YOU HAVE TO BRUSH.

How often should you brush your dog’s teeth?

Dog licking toothbrush

From talking with several different dental specialists and veterinarians over the years, and looking at the data – IN AN IDEAL WORLD – you should be brushing your dog’s teeth daily. This is because the longer plaque sits on teeth, the longer time it stays in contact with the gums, and after 24 hours plaque starts to turn into tartar – which you can’t just “brush” away (unfortunately).

But if you have a small breed dog – less than 25 lbs – you may actually want to consider brushing more often – even twice daily. Because according to Dr. Brook Niemiec, DVM, DAVDC (a veterinary dental specialist here in Southern California) dogs under 10 lbs can start to see significant bone loss due to dental disease at as early as 1 yr of age. To give you some perspective, this is usually not seen in larger breed dogs until 4-5 years of age. Dr. Niemiec reports dogs as young as 19 months requiring full mouth extractions due to dental disease in small breed dogs and multiple extractions with minimal visual signs of dental disease in other small breeds.

And though there are other ways to try to control dental health like chews, treats and diets THERE IS ONE MAJOR FLAW – Dog’s don’t always chew evenly on both sides of their mouth. In practice I’ve seen many dogs who have significantly WORSE dental disease on one side of their mouth. So the gold standard for prevention is always going to be brushing!

So all honesty though – if you ask me “how often should I brush my dog’s teeth” – my answer will be – “as often as you brush your own teeth”.

I would honestly recommend adding the task of brushing your dog’s teeth onto your own habits! If you brush your teeth every morning when you wake up – set up your dog’s “dental hygiene station” right next to yours. Brush your teeth, then brush your pup’s before you move onto the next thing for your day. I can almost guarantee you that if you try to make brushing your dog’s teeth a separate task you have to do without attaching it to a routine you already have – you are going to forget. Trust me – I’ve been there.

What do I need to brush my dog’s teeth?

Dog sitting next to toothbrush and toothpaste
  • An appropriately sized toothbrush
  • +/- A dog safe toothpaste / gel

All dogs come in different shapes, and sizes. The appropriate toothbrush for a Yorkie will not be the same as for a Great Dane. You can definitely use a pet toothbrush – these usually have a triangular shaped head with a long handle. The shape is optimized for our dog’s long snout. However for medium to large breed dogs you definitely can use a regular human toothbrush that you would find in your supermarket.

You don’t NEED toothpaste to brush your dog’s teeth. According to research done in humans – brushing with just a wet toothbrush or a dry toothbrush will reduce plaque buildup by at least 57% percent, and the addition of the toothpaste showed an increase of 10-20% – however depending on the toothpaste this number is quite variable. So if you have a dog with allergies, IBD, pancreatitis or another condition where toothpaste may aggravate the condition – that’s fine, go toothpaste free, but still BRUSH.

However I find that if you can use a toothpaste while brushing tends to be more easily accepted by the dog – making the entire tooth-brushing experience easier on everyone. This is because most toothpastes for dogs are flavored – peanut butter, poultry, liver, vanilla mint, etc.

Your Toothpaste Options…

I feel like there are a couple different options for choosing a toothpaste – you can go the scientific route – which means you’ll want a toothpaste that has the VOHC seal. At this time there is ONLY ONE toothpaste that has the seal – Petsmile Toothpaste.

The other option is to DIY a toothpaste at home using a combination of 3 Tbsp Coconut Oil, ¼ tsp mint leaves, and ¼ tsp baking powder.

The Best Preventative for Dental Disease in Dogs

Looking at these categories you may be wondering if you should do just one or more of these methods. And this is where discussing your options with your veterinary team comes in. Ideally you might do ALL the options IF dental health was the only aspect of your pet you were looking to control. 

But the truth is our dogs are COMPLEX beings – and it might not be in their best interest, or even in your ability to do all five of these methods. You might have a dog that has allergies where you can’t give chews – then you might focus on brushing your pup’s teeth. Or you might have a dog that is diabetic where you can’t use any artificial sweeteners (like what is found in most toothpastes or water additives!). You also just might not be able to brush your dog’s teeth – because of time (you are busy!), or because your dog doesn’t tolerate their mouth being touched.

If your dog falls into one of those categories – that’s OKAY – the important thing is to realize what you CAN DO, and what the limitations are. Make sure that your veterinarian checks your dog’s teeth at their yearly wellness examination, and have a discussion about if your pup needs a dental cleaning or not. Some dog’s will need dental cleanings yearly, or even every six months – due to genetics or underlying medical conditions.

I hope that you found this breakdown on these different dental products helpful! If you are looking for more information about dental disease – how it happens, along with 10 common dental conditions to look out for – head over to my blog post where I give an overview on dental disease as a whole. And if you have questions feel free to reach out – comment below, email me, or joint the conversation over on Instagram! I hope to see you around my canine health nuts, til next time.

Love Nikki The Canine Health Nut and Registered Veterinary Technician

Success! You're on the list.



Leave a Reply