Some holiday rituals are burned into our brains, which explains today’s explosion of red roses, boxes of chocolate and candy hearts. Our daily rituals come just as naturally. We don’t need to think about brushing our teeth; we just do it. We should apply that same dental mindset to our dogs. Maybe a daily brushing isn’t necessary but a weekly routine, as well as a regular visit to the vet for a deep cleaning, is essential.

You might not think it’s necessary but consider how often you turn away from your four-legged friend when he comes in for the big smooch. That breath doesn’t exactly scream “kiss me.” If you’ve been neglecting your dog’s teeth, February, which is National Pet Dental Health Month, is a good time to start.

Vets are always reminding owners that they need to clean their dog’s teeth regularly but that task isn’t always followed. Dog owners may be overwhelmed by their vet’s various directions on diet and exercise, meaning that teeth-cleaning can quickly drop down the to-do list. Those owners that may be put off by the price of a thorough teeth-cleaning can always shop around for a better price. But all owners should know that the cost of your dog’s dental care, like that of their human counterparts, will only increase if their teeth are neglected. Remember that last non-covered amount of your dentist’s bill? Extractions are expensive.

Who needs it?

Still not sold on the need for your dog’s teeth need to be cleaned? Consider this: Does your dog eat? And we’re not just talking about the food you put in his bowl each day. Most dogs tend to go rogue when they’re outside, checking out nature’s latest gifts while on a walk or in your yard. And what about inside the house? What do you think they’re plotting when they’re hanging around the kitchen garbage or litter box?

Although dogs with good breath can have bad teeth, bad breath is usually the tipping point for most owners. While brushing can help, breath that smells especially bad can be indicative of serious problems like an abscessed tooth and excessive plaque. And bad, infected teeth can cause a variety of health problems for your dog, especially when the infections spread to the dog’s bloodstream. Bacteria from bad teeth can also cause infections in the liver and heart valves, and weakened teeth can lead to a decreased appetite and weight loss. Your dog may not want to eat if her teeth and gums are sore.

Keep in mind that edible bones and treats that claim to clean your dog’s teeth are nowhere near as effective as brushing. Plus, many of these treats are loaded with extra calories.

Follow a process 

In a perfect world, teeth cleaning would start when dogs are puppies, but even older dogs can get used to a regular brushing.

The toothpaste: Buy a toothpaste that’s enzymatic, which will contain glucose oxidase, an antibacterial agent which will target tartar and plaque. And there’s no rinsing necessary. When you’re finished brushing, the toothpaste will sit on the teeth and continue working. As far as flavor, your dog’s not looking for something in the mint family. Instead, she’d be thrilled with turkey or beef, as most dog toothpaste come in meat and poultry flavors.

The toothbrush: You might be tempted to use an extra toothbrush you have at home but you should buy a toothbrush specifically for dogs. They have a longer handle and small, soft bristles, which will make the brushing easier for you and your dog.

The process: When you’re ready, put your dog on a leash and make sure his head is in a position that’s accessible. You’ll want to enlist a helper to help keep your dog calm, especially during those initial brushings. Let your dog taste the toothpaste first, then wrap some gauze around one or two fingers, put some toothpaste on the gauze and gently work your fingers toward the back of your dog’s mouth, rubbing each tooth. The whole process should take less than 30 seconds. Use your fingers a few times and once your dog is used to it, begin with the brush. Ideally, you’ll brush your dog’s teeth each day—especially smaller dogs, which need more attention—but if you brush them once or twice a week, you’ll save yourself—and your dog—some potential pain in the future.

No one wants to turn down a few doggie kisses, especially on Valentine’s Day, so be sure you pay extra attention this year to your dog’s teeth. They can have a huge impact on a dog’s quality of life so it’s important to be proactive. Remember, while teeth-brushing at the groomer is always helpful, it’s usually not frequent enough to slow down or stop potential problems. Cleanings at the vet are important, too, and you can always check with local vets on their price. The most important thing is to begin now. A few minutes a week can help save your dog’s teeth and sweeten their breath. Your dog—and your nose—will be forever grateful.

Jill Showalter owns Yuppie Puppy and Doggie Day Play in Oak Park. She has personally tended to more than 100,000 dogs since 2007 and has shared stories and advice with numerous dog owners.

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