Tools for toothbrushing
There are some serious benefits to brushing your dog or cat's teeth. Tartar can damage teeth, gums, the ligaments that hold teeth in place, and even the bone beneath. The bacteria in tartar has been linked to infections in other regions of the body, including blood and organs. After a lifetime of neglected dental care, many dogs and cats have so much tartar buildup that their jaws no longer align properly, or they have painful infections in their mouths that they have no way of telling us about other than refusing to eat. Anesthetizing a senior animal for a routine dental cleaning is too risky in many cases, meaning that the animal is going to suffer unnecessarily for the rest of his or her life. Basically, neglecting your animal's hygiene may translate into more difficult--and shorter--senior years.
That being said, I know it's hard. If you can only get to it once in a while, toothbrushing isn't that effective, and your animal will probably not comply readily. You'll probably have to have your animal's teeth professionally cleaned despite your best efforts.
So let's make it easier.
1.) Choose a spot to store your animal's toothbrush supplies that is near an object you interact with every morning. You could put it near your toothbrush, or next to your animal's food. Make it easy for yourself.
2.) Get the brush. There are several types of toothbrushes. We recommend this type, although there are many brands in this style that are just as easy to use. We don't like the fingertip brushes because a) you have to jam your hand into the animal's mouth, and b) animals will naturally want to chew the brush a little if it tastes nice and they're enjoying themselves.
3.) Get an animal toothpaste. Human toothpaste is a huge no-no. Enzymatic dog and cat toothpastes anecdotally work the best, although we haven't seen any research on this. Choose a toothpaste flavor that is going to be a treat for the animal, not for you. Virbac CET malt or seafood flavors are usually enticing to both dogs and cats. We've also used the Petrodex brand of toothpaste in chicken flavor. Some people have expressed concern about sorbitol sweetener in animal toothpaste, but most animals tolerate sorbitol well, especially in the small amounts used in animal toothpaste. Large amounts of sorbitol has the potential to cause temporary loose stools. But don't let them chow down the whole tube and you shouldn't have any problems.
4.) Train your animal to be excited about toothbrushing. Here's the part where you just rolled your eyes. I know. The problem is that I could write a whole book chapter on showing your animal what this fun game called "toothbrushing" is about, and still not address your specific situation. There are plenty of videos on YouTube that will show you how to get started. If you have trouble, don't hesitate to contact an animal behaviorist to show you how to do it, or even do it for you.
In our toothbrushing game, right before breakfast put the toothpaste on the toothbrush and kneel down with your side or back to the animal. Make sure you're in a carpeted area or on a bed so your animal doesn't have to worry about sliding around. Pretend you're going to eat all the toothpaste and keep it all for yourself. Make yummy sounds and turn away slightly when the animal approaches. When he indicates that he would like some too in that special way he does, ask or lure into a down (eventually you wont have to ask--and yes you can teach your cat to do a down) and that means please. And then you, human at your most benevolent and generous, will deign to share what you have by gently brushing his teeth. Most people tend to bear down on the brush too hard--be gentle! If he pulls away, release. Give him a minute to decide whether the game should continue (the animal thinks he has a choice, but your big human brain already knows what's going to happen). Don't take more than 15 seconds, but do it every day. Quit while you're ahead. Smile and tell your animal what a great job they did and put your tools away. Missed a spot? No biggie. You'll get it tomorrow.
Are you one of the brushing elite? Does your cat or dog's breath smell like mint and sunshine? Tell us in the comments!