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How to Brush Your Pet's Teeth!

Has your vet ever asked you to brush your pet’s teeth? This episode’s guest, Veterinary Dentist, Dr. Amy Thomson, breaks down why toothbrushing is important, answers common questions about dental disease, and walks you through a step by step approach to help set up your toothbrushing routine for success and long term dental health.

Welcome, Dr. Thomson!

Dr. Amy Thomson holding her dog

[00:01:04] Dr. Lancellotti: Welcome, everyone, to today’s episode of Your Vet Wants You To Know. I am joined by the brilliant Dr. Amy Thomson, who is here to talk about brushing your pet’s teeth. I’m very excited to talk about this because I think I’m going to take away some really good tips and tricks to implement into my own family, and my three dogs, who definitely could use a little bit more toothbrushing.  So welcome to today’s episode, Dr. Thomson. 

[00:01:30] Dr. Thomson: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here. 

[00:01:33]Dr. Lancellotti: Tell us a little bit about your story. Why is it that teeth are so exciting and important to you? 

[00:01:39]Dr. Thomson: Yeah, it’s pretty funny because it definitely was a bit of a windy road. Dentistry was definitely not on my radar. It just fell into my lap, so to speak, when I entered General Practice after graduating.  I actually graduated as a mixed animal student heavily focused on cats and dogs, but also dairy cows.  Then just the way that life worked out, I took a small animal position right out of vet school and was fortunate to have an amazing mentor who took me under her wing and taught me dentistry because we just didn’t get a ton of it. It’s hard to fit everything in, in vet school. That was something that I didn’t have a lot of. I learned a lot in my first year and the more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know and I wanted to know, and then it just was this proverbial snowball effect, I guess.

Good Dental Care Improves Pets' Lives

[00:02:41] Dr. Lancellotti: What is it about teeth and about oral healthcare that really gets you so passionate? 

[00:02:50] Dr. Thomson: Yeah. It really gets me fired up. I think it just comes down to a combination of things. Overall, I do find as a pet owner, pet parent, and as a veterinarian, it’s just maybe something that isn’t always the top of our radar.  Then when you find it and you treat it, it just really makes such a huge impact on that pet’s quality of life. It just became almost like this repetitive where we would have pet parents that were like, “Well, you know, they’re getting older and so we think it’s like an aging thing,” and then I would find some oral disease and they would trust in me, which is very, you know, humbling to go and care for that. They would come back two weeks after the oral surgery and be like, “Oh my gosh, they haven’t played with this ball in like months or years,” or, “He hasn’t been on the cat tree in months.” That was just very exciting and fulfilling to be able to make that impact. 

[00:04:04] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, I think fulfilling definitely is the word that I would use there. It gives you such joy to be able to see a huge increase in an animal’s quality of life and bringing the pet owner, their pet back from, getting that slowed down kind of not theirself. That’s really wonderful. 

dog rolling on grass holding a ball

Toothbrushing is not just for people!

Dr. Lancellotti: So tell me a little bit about toothbrushing. Why is this one thing that you really like talking about? 

[00:04:29] Dr. Thomson: Yeah, I do. I really do love talking about it. I guess for a lot of reasons it can be quite positive. I know for a lot of dogs and pet parents and kitty cats too, it’s awkward. It should be something that’s pretty basic. We all brush our teeth multiple times a day. So extrapolating that to our pets, it should be somewhat simple and I find that it’s just not simple.  It’s not done the same way. It can be very frustrating and something that isn’t kept up as a regular routine. When it is, it can make such a huge impact in the oral health of our pets. It’s sort of like this gap in what we want for our pets and being able to deliver that. I guess I’ve just learned tips and tricks in going through it with my own small breed dog. I’ve learned from that. I’m excited when it does happen and it is consistent how much of an impact it can make. So I just, I like being able to hopefully kind of bridge that gap, so to speak. 

Scout, aka Raisin Nose, teaches toothbrushing

[00:05:33]Dr. Lancellotti: So you mentioned your own small breed dog. I talk a lot about my dog, Russell Sprout, who is the mascot for Your Vet Wants You To Know, and kind of relate with everything that he’s gone through with his allergies and Cushing’s disease and behavioral problems. So do you have kind of a relationship that will help our pet owners relate to toothbrushing, in terms of your relationship with your little dog? 

[00:05:59] Dr. Thomson: Yeah. I mean, I think so. I mean, I didn’t get her until I was in my residency.  I’d never envisioned myself having a small breed dog. I’d always had like medium breed dogs and, dogs that would go for runs with me. I had this vision in my head that this little dog couldn’t do those things with me, but Raisin Nose is very fast. So she likes to go running with me. 

[00:06:20] Dr. Lancellotti: I love that name. Raisin Nose is absolutely adorable. Yeah. 

[00:06:24] Dr. Thomson: My sister just started calling her that cause she’s like chocolate color and her nose looks like a raisin and it just sort of stuck and fits with her. I got her maybe when she was about two and she’s a Chihuahua cross. Having been in dentistry and focused on that for years, you see a middle age, even, young Chihuahua. I know the stats. Toy breed dogs, 90% of them have periodontal disease by the time they’re one year old.  I’m counting her at two and going, okay, this is going to be an uphill battle. She was a rescue. I don’t know a lot of her history, but she didn’t know what grass was or toys were. There was a lot that we needed to work through for her to trust me. So coming at her with a toothbrush wasn’t ‘top of the list.’ We slowly incorporated that into our time together. Fast forward several years. Now we’re at the point where she’ll come and she’ll sit, and sometimes she’ll just roll over on her back and just let me brush her teeth.  I think I have some videos and pictures of that on my Instagram where she’s just like, “Well, alright, this is the thing we do.” I think that’s important because it took time to get there. It’s not something that happens overnight. At the same time, I’ve been able to see the “fruits” of that labor. She’s seven-ish and has all of the teeth she came to me with, which is a pride point for me. 

[00:07:50] Dr. Lancellotti: Absolutely. That’s really impressive. For pet owners out there who may not be aware, little dogs, by far, have a much higher risk of having  periodontal disease and having problems with their teeth. So for you to have all of those teeth, I would be proud of that too. If I were you.

[00:08:09] Dr. Thomson: Yes, it is exciting. 

[00:08:12] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s great.  If people want videos of her getting her teeth brushed, they can check out your Instagram, Toothy Thomson, and follow you for dental tips as well.

Why is it important to brush your pets' teeth?

Dr. Lancellotti: Before we get into actually how to do that toothbrushing, why would you say that the routine is so important? What are the benefits that pet owners are going to get out of this routine? 

[00:08:32]Dr. Thomson: It comes down to the pathology of periodontal disease. What I talk about, which is maybe a bit of an “ick” factor, but we can all relate to when we wake up in the morning with what some people will their little ‘fuzzy sweaters” or that slimy feeling on our own teeth. 

[00:08:53] Dr. Lancellotti: Oh yeah. Gross. 

[00:08:54] Dr. Thomson: Yeah. When you wake up, you’re like, okay, I need to brush my teeth.  I bring that up because the same thing happens in our pets’ mouths. When I state that, it seems obvious, but sometimes we don’t think about it that way. That “ick” factor causing everyone to go brush their teeth after this episode, is basically plaque, which is a biofilm of bacteria. So the bacteria in the mouth link arms and create this film. So as opposed to free floating elsewhere in the body, I think of it as this little army on the teeth that don’t want to be disrupted. While we’ll use you know, minty flavored toothpaste so that we have nice breath as well, the main function of brushing is to disrupt that army. It really needs to be done mechanically because, I mean, I’m a nerd, so I think it’s cool, but essentially it’s this organism that’s created and these bacteria, when they’re linked arms can battle away antibiotics or oral rinses or things like that. They’re pretty good at arming themselves against those things. But if you get a toothbrush in there and disrupt it and basically unlink their arms, then they’ve lost their army defense. 

[00:10:12]Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, that’s great. So being able to actually physically remove that army from the mouth is helpful in protecting the teeth and keeping them healthy.

Biofilm deposited on teeth can turn into tartar if not broken up by toothbrushing.

Create a positive, consistent, daily toothbrushing routine

Dr. Lancellotti: If the pet owner wants to accomplish this successfully and be able to implement a toothbrushing routine longterm, let’s give them some tools to make it easy and realistic. When would you say is the best time to brush an animal’s teeth? 

[00:10:37]Dr. Thomson: Truly, I would say whenever is the best time for them and their pet. When can we make this a positive experience? Because the whole goal is to disrupt that “army” or that biofilm, because it builds up in as short as 12 hours. But it doesn’t become calcified or turned into calculus or tartar for about 24 hours. Routine so important is because if we can do it each day, we’re kind of disrupting the army before they’re solidified or calcified onto the tooth and we can’t disrupt it, if that makes sense. So I think just finding a time in your day that works for both you and your pet, that’s going to be the ideal time. If I say you’ve got to do it in the morning or the evening, and then, that time period comes along and doesn’t get done well, then it gets missed for a day and we fall off the wagon, so to speak. The right time truly is when it works you and your pet and making that a daily routine so we can get ahead of that army, so to speak. So you get to pick the time that works for you. I would say pairing it with something positive. What’s the highlight of the day or when will be the highlight of the day and trying to pair it with something that they really enjoy, because at first it’s kind of awkward and it’s weird. And so we want it to be a positive experience.

[00:12:07] Dr. Lancellotti: Now, when you say positive experience, I talk about this a lot with a lot of the dermatology things that I ask my pet owners to do with their pets, and oftentimes, a positive experience involves some sort of food reward. How does that incorporate into when you’re brushing their teeth and you’re trying to get their teeth clean. Can you incorporate food with that? 

[00:12:28] Dr. Thomson: For sure. I think that that is one of the biggest misconceptions because with us and our teeth, we want to brush after we eat. Certainly that would be okay, but the main reason for us is because of cavities. We brush to prevent cavities as well as periodontal disease. I think we talk more with human oral health or at least my personal impression with my own health is we talk a little bit more about cavities. Whereas. Cats. We haven’t really documented they get the same kind of decay as humans and dogs. They get other weird lesions but less than 5% of dogs get cavities. So actually I always brush Raisin Nose’s teeth before her meal or before a treat. 

[00:13:19]Dr. Lancellotti: That’s a great way of creating that positive association between, okay. I’m getting my teeth brushed, and as soon as my teeth are brushed, I am going to get something delicious right afterwards. So they look forward to it. 

[00:13:30] Dr. Thomson: Exactly. Yeah. The idea as we brush is for there to be nothing on our teeth that can cause cavities, for example sugars, whereas, the focus should be more on just breaking up that army of bacteria on our cat and dogs teeth. Adding food in after is okay, because we’ve disrupted that.

toothbrushing dog

How do I brush my pet's teeth?

[00:13:54]Dr. Lancellotti: Perfect. So let’s get down into the nitty gritty of the actual toothbrushing process and talk us through step-by-step how to brush the teeth in a way that’s more successful than when I brush my toddler’s teeth. Do you have any specific tips for each species? 

[00:14:10] Dr. Thomson: Yeah, for sure. I don’t have a toddler, so you can tell me if it’s the same with toddlers, but with pets, I would say the biggest obstacle is them chewing on the toothbrush or they feel nauseous or uncomfortable having that toothbrush on their tongue or touching the roof of their mouth. They just want to get it out of their mouth. Trying to brush the inside surfaces of the teeth doesn’t go well, I guess the way I look at it is if brushing all the surfaces of your pet’s teeth happens once in a blue moon, once a month, maybe once a week, once every six weeks, then we’re “missing the boat,” or we’re “behind the 8 ball.” When we talk about that army of bacteria or plaque, it’s been there and It’s calcified because of the minerals in the saliva, and then we’ve gotten plaque on top of that. Now we’ve got stuff that we can’t brush away. So I personally would much rather see myself and other pet parents brush the outside surfaces consistently each day, than just intermittently brushing all the surfaces. The way in which we can do that, and I find more accepting by pets is allowing them to keep their mouth closed. I go as far as to say that I encourage keeping the mouth closed. I’m right-handed. so I use my left non-dominant hand and the thumb and index finger on that hand and I put my thumb under Scout’s chin, and then I put just my index finger over her muzzle and just the slightest bit of pressure to help encourage her to keep her mouth closed. Then I slide, with my dominant hand or right hand, the toothbrush underneath her cheek between her cheek and her teeth. 3-4 strokes back and forth, and then like a little sweep down motion which probably, I don’t know, takes maybe 10, 15 seconds. Then I do the other side and then I just do the front teeth. So in all, probably less than a minute. 

Cat getting its teeth brushed.
Puppy receiving toothbrushing.

Train your pet to enjoy the toothbrush!

[00:16:23] Dr. Lancellotti: That seems pretty feasible. Actually, it doesn’t seem overwhelming when you describe it like that. What about for those pet owners who have never used a toothbrush with their pet before? Would you recommend that they just come at their dog or their cat right with the toothbrush? Or is there kind of like a gradual buildup that they should do? 

[00:16:43] Dr. Thomson: I guess I just jumped right in. So like that would be the goal with a toothbrush. Certainly start with puppies using positive reinforcement. I think a lot of us go back to the treats. Even just handling the mouth, because some pets aren’t used to having their mouth handled.  Even just practicing holding their mouth closed with very minimal pressure. It’s weird describing it because normally, pre COVID I would, show owners I would start with just the handling of the mouth, like them allowing you to hold their mouth and then they get a treat or an encouraging phrase like “yes,” or, ” good girl,” “good boy.” Start with whatever is going to be your key . Once you’re there, hold the mouth with your non dominant hand and lift the lip or touch the canine tooth or touch a tooth. Then I often will just start using my finger instead of a toothbrush, just so they get the feeling of something touching their teeth between their cheek, then the toothbrush, then you could start with a little bit of toothpaste on your finger and then bring it all together. 

[00:17:56]Dr. Lancellotti: Great. So working it up step by step, just holding the mouth gently closed, giving a reward, putting a finger inside the mouth, giving a reward, putting a toothbrush inside the mouth, giving a reward, maybe adding some toothpaste on if they like it and giving a reward and kind of building up as the animal is showing that calm acceptance for each increasing step.

[00:18:18] Dr. Thomson: Yes. I find like using a thumb and index finger and then curling your other fingers down, so they can see you. When I first started, I would use my whole hand and she’s so little that my hand would cover her vision of me. I think we can appreciate, if someone’s covering your eyes, you are wondering, “What’s going on?” So I’ve also found that curling the fingers down is helpful too, so they can see me. We have a good relationship. I generally wouldn’t do anything to harm her and obviously your pets are gonna feel the same way. Something so simple as not blocking their vision or not opening their mouth is helpful in making it as positive as an experience can be when it’s very foreign and strange.

Try to do toothbrushing every day

[00:19:04]Dr. Lancellotti: That’s great. How often would you say pet owners should be doing this routine to provide optimal oral health?  

[00:19:15] Dr. Thomson: I would say daily brushing is the goal. I have had patients that have conditions where they’re more reactive to their plaque and calculus or there’s other things going on, where they were brushing twice a day. That is amazing. But I think that the goal would always be once a day.  If you’re doing it every day, it becomes routine and allows you to get a step ahead of that plaque transforming into calculus. If you miss a day, we’re all human. I’ve missed a day with Scout. I’ve missed a couple days. That’s okay. But the goal would certainly be daily. 

[00:19:51]Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. She’s still got all her teeth. So you can’t have missed too many days. 

[00:19:55] Dr. Thomson: Right. Yeah, I miss a day here and there. It happens. We’re all human.  There is some information out there that says every other day is as good as every day. When you read the fine print, we’re going to ultimately get some buildup of plaque and maybe some calculus, if we’re going every other day and then, six months from now, then every other day isn’t as good as every day. To keep things simple, I always recommend every day. 

Tips and tricks for toothbrushing success long term

[00:20:23] Dr. Lancellotti: What are some of the big takeaway points that you want pet owners to remember regarding toothbrushing and their pet? 

[00:20:29]Dr. Thomson: it’s weird. It’s awkward. When you first start out, it’s going to take time. It’s very foreign, especially if you’re starting with an adult pet. If you have a puppy right now listening to this, awesome. They’ve got puppy teeth, which are sharp, so be careful. They can spend their whole time as a puppy getting used to this and then their adult teeth come in and you’re like ready to go, which is awesome. But if you’ve got an adult dog, they’ve lived however many years not doing this, right? A new puppy we can convince them that this is the norm. But the adult dogs and cats, this is foreign. Be patient with them, be patient with yourself and make it a positive thing. It always comes back to when is it going to be positive and when is it a time that we can be consistent? With previous pets, dinner time was a hectic time, so that didn’t happen, so it became a bedtime routine for her. Whereas with Scout, it’s generally like around meal time. So, I think just being patient, making it a positive is important. Just like you and I, we brush our teeth every day, multiple times a day, we still go to the dentist. Teethbrushing is not going to remove the need for professional care with your veterinarian, but it’s definitely going to help. Scout gets professional cleanings at least once every nine months. I try to do every six months because she’s a small breed dog. Teethbrushing doesn’t remove the need for that. It just means the professional cleaning is much quicker, leading to less anesthesia time, and she gets to keep teeth. We’re not having to extract teeth when she comes. 

[00:22:08]Dr. Lancellotti: That should be the goal, keeping as many teeth as possible while we keep the mouth as healthy as possible. 

[00:22:13] Dr. Thomson: Absolutely. My goal would be to see patients when they need a cleaning, they’ve got plaque calculus, or they’ve got some gingivitis, but we don’t have any, bone loss or mobile teeth or things like that. That’s always my goal. I would love that. I just know that can’t always be the case. I find that toothbrushing does make a huge impact. Not just with my own dog, but with patients that I’ve gotten to see. It does make a huge impact in not taking teeth or we’re taking fewer teeth when we see them. It’s something that we can be doing at home that’s going to make a big impact on their overall health. 

[00:22:46]Dr. Lancellotti: For toothbrushing consistency and positivity, that’s the key for making this successful for both pet owner and pet.

[00:22:54] Dr. Thomson: For sure. No one wants to cringe at toothbrushing time and chase your pet around the house.  We definitely don’t want that. Is it the gold standard for oral health? Absolutely. I don’t want you to be chasing your pet around the house, because that’s going to impact your relationship and your bond with them. That’s the whole point of having our pets. Just be patient with it, make it positive. You know your pet best to determine what is going to pair the best with this to make it a positive thing. 

Connect with Dr. Thomson and other pet owners

[00:23:25]Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. Have it be something that everybody in the household looks forward to and I think it’ll be the most successful routine. There’s a resource page on the website where you can find a veterinary dentist near you, if you would like to consult with a specialist. Many family veterinarians are very comfortable managing pets with dental disease. Dr. Thomson, if pet owners want more information on dental disease specifically, and would like to reach out to you, where can they follow you? 

[00:24:17]Dr. Thomson: Yeah. So, as you mentioned, I do have @Toothy.Thomson on Instagram and that’s sort of ‘all things teeth.’ Raisin Nose is in there quite a bit and a little bit of my day to day life, but I do talk a lot about teeth there. I have just recently launched a website with the goal of disseminating information and sharing there. So, I think by the time this airs there’ll be a resource page that will have information breaking down veterinary recommendations on all things oral health. For example, fractured teeth, toothbrushing, what’s involved in a COHAT, or a comprehensive oral health assessment and treatments, otherwise known as a “dental.” Generally, what’s involved in that when your pet goes to your vet to have a cleaning and x-rays, and that kind of thing. 

[00:25:12] Dr. Lancellotti: Excellent. And would you like to share the website address? 

[00:25:16] Dr. Thomson: Oh, sure. I guess I have to do that. Right. Toothy Thomson no “P” in my last name, no dots there. So it’s 

[00:25:26]Dr. Lancellotti: Wonderful. For anybody who has a very small breed dog, this is probably a good resource for you so that you could check that out and keep your pet’s oral health in tip-top shape. I would also encourage pet owners to join the Facebook group, Your Vet Wants You To Know, and tell us about your experience with brushing your pet’s teeth. I would love to see more pictures and videos of the listeners doing that with their pets. I think that would be great. You can share your own tricks with other pet owners who might benefit there. It’s a really great resource for people and a community that we’re building of pet owners who really appreciate the evidence-based medicine and the science that we’re bringing to the show. If you have found some benefits in today’s show, I would encourage you to subscribe so you don’t miss more episodes. Take a moment, leave a quick review on Apple Podcasts so that more people are able to find the show in the future. That’s a great way to increase visibility and just get the good information out there to other people. 

"Scratching the Itch"

[00:26:29] Dr. Lancellotti: Dr. Thomson, I end every episode with a segment called Scratching The Itch. It’s a short segment that just highlights something, whether it’s a human interest story, a product, a website, basically whatever you want, that either provides relief or just makes you feel good. Hence, scratching the itch.  I would love to know if you have a ‘scratching the itch’ for our listeners today. 

[00:26:53]Dr. Thomson: It’s funny because talking about toothbrushing scratches that itch for me. I love connecting with pet parents. I would say for me right now is connecting on social media with other veterinarians. That has really scratched the itch for me this last year.  I really enjoyed connecting with other veterinarians, such as yourself. We met, virtually met.  So that’s been really helpful to be able to have this dialogue and have my  nerdiness embraced and people enjoying talking about these topics. So I would say the general community has been huge. 

[00:27:32] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, it’s been really nice to meet people with similar interests through that outlet, especially since we’re in a situation where we haven’t been able to go to veterinary conferences and connect with people in person. Getting the chance to actually meet people who have this passion and this nerdiness for veterinary medicine, I would agree. It’s scratched the itch for me too. 

[00:27:55] Dr. Thomson: Yeah, it’s been really great. It makes you feel a little bit less disconnected and isolated in times like this.

[00:28:03]Dr. Lancellotti: Absolutely. Dr. Thomson, thank you so much for coming on and talking to pet owners today about toothbrushing. I hope that they got some great information out of this and that they check out the resources that are in the show notes so that they can see those videos and pictures to help them practice that toothbrushing technique with their pets at home so that they can maintain good oral health. I am so thankful for you taking the time to come on today. 

[00:28:28] Dr. Thomson: Oh, it was definitely my pleasure. I’m excited to see pet parents sharing their tips and tricks and videos and pictures of teeth brushing I’m excited for that. 

[00:28:38] Dr. Lancellotti: Wonderful. And for everyone listening, I look forward to your next visit with Your Vet Wants You To Know.


  1. Creevy, Kate E., et al. “2019 AAHA Canine Life Stage Guidelines.” Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, vol. 55, no. 6, Nov. 2019, pp. 267–290.
  2. Harvey, Colin, et al. “Effect of Frequency of Brushing Teeth on Plaque and Calculus Accumulation, and Gingivitis in Dogs.” Journal of Veterinary Dentistry, vol. 32, no. 1, Spring 2015, pp. 16–21.
  3. Wallis, C., et al. “Association of Periodontal Disease with Breed Size, Breed, Weight, and Age in Pure-Bred Client-Owned Dogs in the United States.” Veterinary Journal (London, England : 1997), July 2021, p. 105717.
  4. Watanabe, Kazuhiro, et al. “Tooth Brushing Inhibits Oral Bacteria in Dogs.” The Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, vol. 77, no. 10, Oct. 2015, pp. 1323–1325. 

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