As pet parents, we too have sat on the bathroom floor trying to coax our dog to open their mouth and let us brush their teeth. We all know that we're supposed to brush our dog's teeth, but with some dogs, this task can feel like an impossible feat. And when brushing fails, you don't need a guilt trip — you need to know how to clean dog teeth without brushing.
We know you want your dog to have good oral health. That's why you're here looking for teeth cleaning alternatives. So, we're skipping the lecture on why healthy teeth are important, and we're getting straight down to the techniques and tools you need to clean your dog's teeth without brushing.
How to Clean Dog Teeth Without Brushing
Pet stores have entire aisles dedicated to doggy dental hygiene, so there's no shortage of options for dog owners who struggle to brush their dog's teeth. We'll cover the most common dental care alternatives and show you which ones we use with our pets and which ones we skip.
Approaches to Try
Here are our five favorite teeth cleaning techniques to use when brushing isn't an option. Each of these solutions is safe when executed properly and comes with multiple health and behavioral benefits that go beyond oral hygiene.
1. Professional Cleanings
Regular dental cleanings are the most important thing you can do for your pet's dental health. Schedule an oral exam with your family vet once a year — especially if you're unable to brush your dog's teeth at home.
If your current search for dog teeth cleaning tips came about because your dog has especially bad breath, then it's time to make an appointment. While our best friends aren't known for their minty fresh breath, it shouldn't smell rancid.
You also shouldn't be able to smell bad breath from outside your dog's mouth. If you can, this could be a sign of an underlying dental problem, including periodontal diseases like gingivitis, a gum disease that can cause your dog's gum line to recede and eventually lead to tooth loss.
And because oral health is connected to your dog's overall health, dental disease can put your dog at risk for more serious conditions that include kidney disease, liver disease, and heart disease. Some dogs — including small-breed dogs, older dogs, and flat-faced dogs — have a higher risk of developing dental disease and the complications that come with it.
With regular X-rays, your vet can identify dental problems early on and help you come up with a treatment plan. Plus, annual cleanings will help remove the tartar and plaque build up that lead to gingivitis and other periodontal diseases.
2. All-Natural Hard Chews
In the wild, dogs don't have access to toothbrushes or doggy dentists, so nature gave them something else to help fight plaque off: bones. Raw bones and other all-natural chews, like antlers, bully sticks, and yak chews, help remove plaque and tartar buildup by scraping your dog's teeth as they chomp down. This scraping action essentially acts like a scrub, polishing your dog's pearly whites.
The longer your dog chews the item, the cleaner their teeth will get (and the more time they'll be entertained). So, longer lasting hard chews, like antlers and yak chews, tend to be more effective than easier to eat bully sticks — but bully sticks are usually more flavorful. If your dog finds antlers boring, try swapping them for yak chews or soaking them in an all-natural bone broth for a few hours to improve their flavor.
Supervise your dog any time they eat bones or hard chews to make sure no small pieces break off and become choking hazards. If you notice any small pieces, pick them up and throw them away before your dog can swallow them. Raw bones, antlers, and yak chews are safer than cooked bones because they're less likely to splinter and crack.
3. Dental Chew Toys
Much like how all-natural chews will scrub the surface of your dog's teeth, so will chew toys. Again, a harder surface will clean better than a soft one. Look for a hard rubber chew toy because, unlike plastic chews, rubber chews are unlikely to have small pieces break off for your dog to swallow. Any chew toy can become a choking hazard, so always watch your dog when they play with their toys.
Many pet stores now carry hard rubber chew toys that are specially designed to help pet owners clean their dog's teeth. Some of these toys have rubber nubs that look like the bristles on a toothbrush. The nubs are designed to scrub your dog's teeth from multiple angles. Some chew toys even advertise on the packaging that you can add a flavored dog toothpaste on the nubs to convince your pet to brush their own teeth.
4. Probiotic Supplements
When we want to improve our pooch's overall dental health, we choose all-natural hard chews and probiotic supplements over dental treats (more on these below). In a laboratory analysis, L. casei probiotic strains were found to reduce the activity of bacteria that causes dental plaque. And in a double-blind study on humans, a group given probiotics had lower levels of oral bacteria than a placebo group.
While research into probiotics and oral health is still on-going, the early evidence looks promising. Because probiotics for dogs can promote a healthier microbiome in our dogs' mouths (in addition to a healthier gut microbiome), they're one of our go-to daily supplements to support our pets’ overall well being.
5. Dental Finger Toothbrush
Admittedly, this toothbrushing alternative actually involves brushing your dog's teeth, but some dogs will be more comfortable letting you put your finger in their mouth than they would be letting you put a toothbrush in their mouth.
If your dog doesn't enjoy being groomed with tools but is generally okay with touch (including letting you lift their lip with your finger), try using a dental finger toothbrush to clean their teeth.
This tool is a small silicone cover that you place over your fingertip. It has silicone bristles on it so you can add flavored toothpaste and scrub your pet's teeth with your finger.
This teeth cleaning technique works best if your best friend already understands bite inhibition. Your finger will have tasty chicken or peanut butter flavored toothpaste on it, so your dog needs to know not to nip at your finger.
If your dog has ever shown aggression when being groomed or having their teeth brushed, only try this technique with help from a professional animal behaviorist.
Approaches to Skip
Now that we've covered how to clean dog teeth without brushing, here's how not to do it. These are the teeth cleaning options that have too many downsides or not enough evidence of working.
1. Water Additives
Pet stores often carry a selection of enzymatic water additives. Depending on the formula, they can contain natural enzymes or artificial ingredients designed to neutralize bad breath. You add a specified amount to your dog's water each day, and it acts as a mouthwash when your dog drinks the water.
We don't like to use water additives for two reasons: Some additives only mask your dog's bad breath rather than treating plaque and tartar. More importantly, most change the taste of your dog's water. Some furry friends will drink less water because of this, which is bad for your dog's dental health and overall health.
2. Dental Treats
Dental treats are one of the most popular ways to clean dog teeth without brushing. Generally, these treats don't contain active ingredients that clean your dog's teeth. Instead, the texture of the treat does the cleaning.
Your dog's teeth sink into the treat. Then, as they pull their teeth out again, the treat scrapes away plaque and tartar — similar to how natural bones and chews clean your dog's teeth.
We prefer to stick with natural chews over specially marketed dental treats because the natural chews tend to last longer — more chewing means more teeth cleaning. Plus, most dental treats contain low-quality, processed ingredients.
For example, these are the first four ingredients in a popular dental chew: wheat flour, glycerin, wheat gluten, and gelatin. (The list goes on.)
Compare that to the ingredients in an all-natural Yak Chew: organic yak's milk, organic cow's milk, organic lime, and sea salt. (That's it. That's the whole list.)
We'll stick with the natural chews.
Help Make Your Dog’s Teeth Fresh and Clean
If you can't brush your dog's teeth, you can still protect their oral health. Take them for regular dental cleanings, give them all-natural bones and chews, try hard rubber chew toys, and add a daily probiotic supplement.
If your dog's breath ever seems especially bad, schedule a check-up with your vet. Your best friend's breath may never be as fresh as yours, but it shouldn't clear the room. Your vet can help rule out an underlying dental problem.
For more advice on your pet's health and wellness, check out the Native Pet blog.