Dog getting his teeth brushed

Although most owners are highly attuned to their dogs’ barks, they tend to overlook what’s going inside those mouths. We’re talking about canine pearly whites.

The reality is that oral neglect can lead to a host of problems for pets: More than 68 percent of dogs over the age of three are estimated to have some form of periodontal or dental disease — making it a commonly diagnosed problem.

Bad teeth can also have bigger ramifications, says Dr. Mary Sykes, DVM, an associate veterinarian at Village Animal Hospital in Larchmont, New York. “There are bacteria that normally exist in the mouth — we have it, dogs have it— but if you have a lot of inflammation or gingivitis in the gums, that bacteria can work its way into the bloodstream, affecting other organs,” she explains.

Proper oral care can also improve the human-pet bond. “If dogs have bad breath, it can affect how we interact with them,” says Dr. Sykes. “Good oral hygiene makes for a better relationship because we don’t mind if they’re in our face.”

In honor of National Pet Dental Health Month, here are a few key products and tips to help you keep your pet’s teeth in perfect shape.

Doggy Toothbrush

“The number-one thing any veterinary dentist will tell you to do is brush your dog’s teeth,” says Dr. Sykes. “It’s the gold standard for maintaining oral health.”

While she acknowledges that it’s one of the more difficult things for pet owners to accomplish, the right tools and techniques can help make a weekly brushing much easier. “You have to ease the dog into it,” she says. “You can’t take a toothbrush, put toothpaste on it and stuff it into the dog’s mouth.”

Instead, says Dr. Sykes, get a canine toothbrush that’s specially designed for smaller mouths. “Many owners like a brush that you can stick over the tip of your finger,” she says. “It’s really a matter of playing around and figuring out what’s going to be comfortable."

Then put a little toothpaste on your finger and let your dog lick it off. Once you’ve worked up to massaging the teeth with your finger, you can do the same with a toothbrush. “Just go slowly,” says Dr. Sykes. “And reward the dog when you’re done.”

Pet Toothpaste

“The brand of toothpaste we recommend the most is C.E.T.,” says Dr. Sykes. “They do a lot of research, and we think that they have a good product.” Above all, make sure that you’re using a product designed for dogs — or you could be putting your pet at risk.

Many human toothpastes contain xylitol, a sugar substitute that’s safe for humans but highly toxic in dogs. Even if there is no xylitol, dogs can swallow ingredients like foaming agents, which can lead to stomach upset. Baking soda isn’t a good alternative either, since it can upset the acid balance in the stomach and digestive tract if swallowed.

Plus, doggie toothpastes are “often beef or chicken flavored,” says Dr. Sykes, “because that’s what they like.”

Therapeutic Dry Kibble

“One of the things that we’ll recommend for better health is therapeutic dry food,” says Dr. Sykes, who recommends that you speak to your vet about specific options. “It’s designed so that each time the dog bites into it, he gets a mechanical cleaning.” Dr. Sykes adds that the act of chewing, in general, helps ward off periodontal disease.

So what constitutes a healthy mouth for a canine? A dog’s teeth should be a nice, shiny white, and the gums should be firm and pink, just like ours.

And when it comes to that brown tartar buildup you sometimes see on their teeth, Dr. Sykes says that “if you’re seeing big chunks of brown, that’s not good.”

Dental Chew Toy

Yes, even toys are admissible in the quest for clean teeth, especially those designed to get into nooks and crannies. The one thing to watch out for is if your dog has a penchant for eating things whole, in which case you should look for chews that break down naturally in the stomach. “You have to be careful because some dogs will ingest the entire toy," says Dr. Sykes. "Some can even break their teeth."

Professional Cleaning

Dr. Sykes suggests that you check often for heavy tartar buildup in your dog’s mouth — and ask your vet to take a closer look at his teeth the next time you take him in for a checkup.

“The thing is, you can often have a dog who has horrible teeth, but he shows absolutely no signs of it,” says Dr. Sykes. “If they have an ear infection, they’ll shake their head, or if it’s an eye infection, they’ll have discharge — but with a tooth infection, you might not be aware.”

The best way to protect your pet is a healthy dose of preventive maintenance. “Annual cleanings should be assessed on an individual basis,” she says. “Some dogs, because you do such a good job, won’t need a professional cleaning until they’re nine or 10.” Smaller dogs, she notes, tend to have more buildup, due to genetics, and may need a cleaning as soon as age two or three.

But there’s a lot of good you can do all on your own. “People can maintain at home by brushing and doing all of the above,” says Dr. Sykes. “We’d rather just use these cleanings as a supplement.”