The AHNA Way to Brush Your Pet’s Teeth (and a Video!)

By David Thompson, DVM

brush your pet's teethDid you know that making a resolution to spend an extra  two minutes a day caring for your pet can make a big difference in your pet’s comfort and may add years of life?  Everyone at Animal Hospital of North Asheville wants you to make the resolution today to brush your pet’s teeth every day! It only takes two minutes and most pets can be conditioned to actually love having their teeth brushed. Okay, maybe “love” is an exaggeration for cats, but many cats can be conditioned to cooperate and see it as a good part of the day. 

The most important time in teaching your pet to like tooth brushing is the first few days. You cannot be impatient and you cannot force your pet to cooperate, so decide right now that you will never use force and you must never use punishment!  It has to be fun and rewarding for your pet and it must be fun for you - or you probably won’t do it. Done correctly, the conditioning process will take from one week to several weeks before you are actually accomplishing a real tooth brushing. Taking it very slowly will have a big payout in that your pet will cooperate for years to come as you brush the teeth every day.

It is important to note that some pets just naturally take tooth brushing in stride while others are naturally less cooperative. There is no way to predict how much your pet will tolerate before objecting, so  even if your pet seems cooperative in the beginning, take it slowly because you never want to push them to the point that they are objecting. You always want to end the tooth brushing while they are cooperating, because if you wait until they are objecting then you are actually training them to object. Of course, always respect your pet’s ability to bite and do not risk being bitten.  It must be fun for your pet.

So, what do you need to have on hand? You need wonderful treats, a pet toothbrush, and pet toothpaste.  The treats need to be “high value treats.” High value means a really special treat that your pet is crazy about, such as pieces of meat or a tasty commercially made treat that they love and don’t get at other times. The pet toothbrush should have very soft bristles and a long handle as shown in the picture. The pet toothpaste eventually acts as a high value treat to some pets because it tastes so good.  My own pets actually beg to have their teeth brushed just because they love the toothpaste.  The pet toothbrush and pet toothpaste are available here in the display at the front desk of Animal Hospital of North Asheville.

Now for what to do: 

Day 1:  Try to establish a routine.  Decide what time of day and where you want to brush your pet’s teeth. Pick a time that you won’t feel rushed and your pet is normally calm.  It must also be a time that you will find easy to remember such as right when you come in from their walk or before you go to work or to bed. Just be sure to pick a time that is easy to remember, so you don’t forget to brush!  Pick a place where your pet normally feels relaxed and always brush in the same place, as that will help your pet feel more secure. If your pet is small and sleeps in your bed, you might choose to do it on your bed. If you have a large dog, you might just want to do it either on a carpet on the floor or with you sitting in a chair with your pet’s head in your lap. Once you have decided on your location, get a couple of high value treats, the toothbrush and toothpaste and say to your pet in a happy, calm voice, “Let’s brush your teeth.” Give your pet a treat as soon as you reach the location for tooth brushing. The first day, all you are going to do is put some of the pet toothpaste on your finger and let your pet lick it off. Give another high value treat and say, “You are so good!”  Just do this once and you are finished for the day.  It is best to use a happy voice throughout the process but keep it calm and do not try to get your pet excited. Never scold your pet or use punishment!  If your pet is not cooperating, then you need to reevaluate what you are doing. Punishment will not work!

Day 2-Day 4:  Repeat of Day 1 except you are going to let your pet lick the toothpaste off the toothbrush.  Cats may prefer the toothpaste or, if not, dip the toothbrush in tuna juice or a favorite canned food…use imagination and see what works.  Don’t forget to give treats!

Day 5 and 6:  Everything exactly as Day 1 but also touch your pet’s muzzle/lips while he or she is licking the toothpaste.  Do not open the mouth. You actually never open the mouth when brushing a pet’s teeth. You only brush the outer surfaces of the teeth. Remember the treats!

Day 7 and 8:  Same as Day 1 but gently lift the upper lip on one side and slide the toothbrush in against the outer surface of the teeth. Remember that you do not open the mouth.  Your pet will still be trying to lick the tooth paste, so there may be times your pet opens the mouth.  Once your pet is more used to brushing, you can try to minimize the toothpaste licking.   Give treats!

Day 9:  Again, do things as you did on Day 1, but since you are using treats and a yummy toothpaste, your pet should not mind you trying to stabilize their head and mouth a little so that you can brush.  If you have a small dog or a dog with a short nose, it may be easiest to have them lie on their side on your bed or if you have a big dog, they can lie on their side on the floor or rest their head in your lap. Remember that you must take it slowly.  Each day, you should be able to accomplish a tiny bit more brushing until you are actually able to brush all the outer surfaces of your pet’s teeth, but it may take 2-3 weeks of very gradual and patient work.

Every pet is different.  Some will allow meaningful brushing in a day or two and others take much more time.  Almost all pets, if approached slowly and with treats, will actually learn to like it. After all, you and I brush and it does not hurt or even feel uncomfortable. The only difference is that your pet just isn’t used to it.  If you try this process, you will be amazed at how easy it is.  Please be sure to watch the above video of me at home brushing the teeth of my little dog, Ellie, and the teeth of my bigger dog, Roy. It is sooooo easy. 

If you need motivation, just think about this: Do you feed high quality food or even organic food? Great, but remember that unless you live on a toxic waste dump, the number one thing that puts toxins into your pet will be from  bacteria in the mouth that colonize on the teeth unless your brush.  And the toxins will be there every minute of every day being swallowed by your pet. So brush before they colonize!


Hi! Thanks so much Dr. Thompson. You make brushing your pet's teeth look so simple. I think we just might be able to do this. Wow! It looks really simple. Thanks so much!