How to teach your dog or cat to accept tooth brushing

tooth brushing

Regular tooth brushing is an important part of your dog or cat’s dental care regimen. Find out how to get her to accept and even enjoy the procedure.

Caring for your dog or cat’s dental health is paramount, especially when you consider how common periodontal disease is. At least 80% of dogs over the age of three, and up to 90% of cats over four, have some degree of dental disease. Although these numbers are staggering, there are many things we can do to help prevent dental problems in our dogs and cats, from feeding them the correct diet, to brushing their teeth regularly between veterinary check-ups. The problem is most animals don’t like having their teeth brushed, which means most people just don’t do it. The good news is that you can train your dog or cat to accept and even enjoy tooth brushing, no matter what her age. Read on to find out how!


If you’ve recently adopted a puppy or kitten, the best defense against dental disease is to start her as soon as possible on a good at-home dental hygiene routine, including brushing. The biggest challenge with a young animal is to help her stay still and not get too “bitey”. Slow and steady always wins the race, so start with these steps and always go at your youngster’s pace and comfort level.

Tip: Your goal is to teach your animal to be calm and enjoy the brushing, so you can gradually increase the time you spend doing it. Progress to the next step only once she has mastered the step before. This could take one session or several. There is no rush.

  1. Start when your puppy or kitten is somewhat relaxed, not when she’s ready to have a “zoomie” session.
  2. Place a dab of pet toothpaste or coconut oil on your finger (always use toothpaste specially formulated for dogs and cats — never human toothpaste). Allow her to sniff and lick your finger. Repeat twice. Do this once a day for a few days. Move to the second step once your puppy or kitten is eagerly anticipating this first step.
  3. Now, instead of just having your young animal lick the dab off, slide your finger into her mouth as she’s licking and massage one side of her gums for just a second or two. Repeat on the other side. Continue this process daily. Once you are easily sliding your finger along her gums, continue to the next step.
  4. Once your puppy or kitten is accepting a little gum massage, start to pay attention to massaging each tooth.
  5. Your youngster is now becoming a pro at allowing you to massage her teeth and gums with either her pet toothpaste or coconut oil. If you started with coconut oil to help encourage her taste enjoyment, switch to a half coconut oil/half pet toothpaste mix and start to wean out the coconut oil.
  6. Now it’s time to transition from your finger to your brushing tool of choice. Depending on your puppy or kitten’s mouth structure, you might use a baby toothbrush, a finger toothbrush, a glove with nubs, or even a gauze pad. Don’t forget to clean the toothbrush after each brushing.


If you have an adult dog or cat who already hates having his teeth brushed so much that you’ve given up, what can you do? The first step is to take him to the veterinarian for a dental check-up. The vet may need to perform an exam prior to having you start an at-home routine to determine if your animal has any decaying or chipped teeth or severely inflamed gums that would need to be professionally addressed first.

Tip: If your dog or cat has to have any dental work done, allow his mouth to heal before starting an at-home brushing regimen.

tooth brushing - dental problemsAs you go through the following steps, pay close attention to your animal’s emotions and behavior. Again, the goal is to go at his comfort level so he is happy at each step.

  1. Find something sticky and tasty that your dog or cat loves. This could
    be canned pet food, coconut oil, or pureed meat. You are looking for a flavor your animal is going to enjoy and look forward to licking.
  2. Ideally, sit on the floor with your animal. Engage with him, showing him that he has a tasty treat coming up. Dab it on your finger, while saying things like: “Are you ready for this tasty snack?” Now that your dog or cat is watching you, bring your hand and the yummy mixture down to his level, but not extended to him. You want him to approach you. Allow him to sniff your hand and lick. That’s it. Repeat this step with two dabs. If your animal doesn’t show interest in the mix, try something else next time. Do this every day for as many days as needed. Don’t move to the next step until your dog or cat is anticipating the process, coming to lick off the dab and looking for more.
  3. Once he’s completely happy with Step 2, gently slip your finger inside his mouth for one second and then back out. Do this once during each dab-licking session. Once he shows no concern about your finger sliding along his gums, move to the next step.
  4. Start to massage his teeth and gums during your brushing sessions, using one dab for each side of the mouth. Continue this process once a day until your dog or cat is happily and easily having his teeth massaged with your finger.
  5. Now gradually transition from a food dab to pet toothpaste. Start with half- and-half of each and slowly decrease the food until you’re only using pet toothpaste.
  6. After you have switched to pet toothpaste, it’s time to move to your toothbrush of choice. It will depend on your dog or cat’s current dental and oral situation, and the structure of his mouth. If he is missing teeth, your veterinarian may recommend using gauze. You can also buy toothbrushes specifically designed for pets, or a finger glove with nubs.

Tip: Whatever the age of your dog or cat, be gentle when you’re brushing his teeth. For optimum success, you don’t want to cause him any discomfort.

As with any other training process, teaching your dog or cat to enjoy having his teeth brushed takes time, patience, and consistency. Take it slow, and give him lots of praise after each session. Once you’ve both got it down pat, brushing his teeth only takes a couple of minutes from start to finish and can vastly improve his dental and overall health.

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