When Did People Start Brushing Dogs’ Teeth?

Canine dental-hygiene needs haven’t changed; our relationship with our pets has.

Black-and-white close-up image of a dog's mouth
Raphye Alexius / Getty

The finger-fitted dog toothbrush, if you aren’t aware, is a plastic tube worn over the human index finger, used to, supposedly easily, brush dogs’ teeth. One variation looks like the genitals of a sea creature. Another looks like the plasticky head of a tiny, bristle-faced scuba diver. I recently spotted one such brush (of the scuba variety) on a friend’s kitchen counter and recognized it instantly as the brush you buy right after your veterinarian tells you, for the first time, that you should brush your dog’s teeth—ideally daily. My vet sells them by the register, a small bit of purchasable comfort for the newly periodontally frightened.

The supposed ease of the finger brush is an attractive prospect for those facing both a new daily task and a new source of guilt. My friend and I both are dog guardians for the first time in our adult lives, but we agreed that, growing up, we didn’t remember being told to brush our family dogs’ teeth, nor did we remember thinking it was a task we were neglecting. We didn’t even remember ever seeing dog toothbrushes or dog toothpaste for sale. My friend looked into my eyes and asked a question I could tell she’d been mulling for some time.

“Were we always supposed to brush our dogs’ teeth?”

For the uninitiated, periodontal disease is one of the most common diseases in dogs (and cats). It happens when plaque turns to tartar, inflaming the gums and potentially causing damage to the teeth, bone loss, and a decrease in appetite. In severe cases it can cause damage to the liver, heart, and kidneys. Home brushing can reduce it greatly, but veterinarians also recommend periodic deep cleanings, which happen under anesthesia.

The physical makeup and hygienic needs of canine teeth surely haven’t changed, so it seems that, yes, we must have always been supposed to brush our dogs’ teeth. Still, to everyone I’ve spoken with about it, the information at least feels new. What’s changed?

You might think the answer is obvious: People, particularly Millennials, just seem to care a lot more about their dogs now. The act of brushing a dog’s teeth every day would make a fitting insult for a washed-up comic to hurl at 30-somethings. Quick, get the dog’s teeth brushed—we’re late for the goldfish’s therapy appointment. Many people these days travel with their dogs, and let them sleep in their bed. They make TikTok videos wherein they “treat” a dog to a “spa day.” Dogs are no longer our pets; they are family members. And family members get their teeth brushed.

You might be surprised, then, to learn that—as far as my research can attest—the first toothbrush made specifically for dogs was patented in 1975. “Dogs, like people, should have a regular schedule of teeth cleaning in order to prevent periodontitis, particular[ly] in the later years of the dog’s life,” says its description. It was designed to fit the shape of the canine jaw, and was followed two years later by a version with a curved handle, which looks pretty similar to the one I use with my dog today. Those finger-fitted friends date back even further, to at least 1934. But they were originally designed for humans and entered the canine market more recently.

The company Jasper makes a (patented) version with bristles around the entire exterior of the finger tube. (It’s the one that looks like sea-creature genitalia.) I reached out to Mike Toofer, one of the company’s co-founders, who, yes, has a strikingly appropriate surname, to ask him why, if we’ve always been supposed to brush our dogs’ teeth, did I never learn about this until my 30s?

Toofer agreed that people are paying more attention to canine dental care lately, and he has a few theories as to why. One of them is proximity—people spend more time with their pets now, and are more apt to recognize symptoms of disease, which, in the case of periodontal disease, can show up first as bad breath. “Breath is oftentimes an indicator of something going on internally,” he said.

And the doggy-dental-product market has risen to meet this newly awakened need for dog-breath control. There are dog toothbrushes and dog toothpaste, yes, but also toys, gels, foams, special foods, treats, and the item most commonly marketed to me on Instagram: water additives. (As you might imagine, only some of these products legitimately help fight periodontal disease. The Veterinary Oral Health Council keeps a reliable tally on which.)

The other major shift is that there’s simply been more research done on canine dental care. “Veterinary dentistry is a relatively new field,” Stephen Riback, the head of dentistry at Schwarzman Animal Medical Center, in New York City, told me. He remembered that when he was in school (“I’m not going to say how many years ago, but it was, you know, a long time ago”), he had just a single lecture on dentistry that was focused on cleaning, not on periodontal disease. Now “the majority of veterinary schools have a dentistry curriculum.”

Riback has noticed an increased focus in veterinary medicine on preventive care generally. “When I was a kid, we only brought our dog to the vet when the dog was sick,” he said. These days people bring pets in regularly for vaccinations, heartworm prevention, and teeth cleanings, among other things. “I think the emphasis is on keeping animals healthier, instead of providing a fire-engine kind of medicine … Now we’re more inclined to want to prevent the fire.”

And the greatest tool for fire prevention vis-à-vis periodontal disease is toothbrushing. When my vet told me I needed to brush my dog’s teeth every day, I thought, I bet she’s just telling me to brush every day because I actually need to brush a few times a week, but she understands human psychology and knows to start a negotiation by asking for too much. So by telling me to brush every day, she ensures I will brush a few times a week.

Not so.

Plaque is soft and easy to remove, but it starts turning into hard tartar within 24 hours of forming on teeth, Riback explained. Tartar is harder to remove. Brushing daily removes plaque before it can turn into tartar. Brushing every other day helps “a little bit” in decreasing plaque and tartar accumulation. Brushing less frequently than that seems to be something like the dental equivalent of an eyelash wish.

Stephanie Goldschmidt, a professor of veterinary dentistry at UC Davis, forwarded me a 2015 study to which she attributes a “big shift” in veterinary recommendations. The study shows that brushing daily had the biggest effect on oral health. “Any less frequently than every other day,” Goldschmidt told me over email, “was no different than not brushing at all.”

Still, people aren’t brushing. Several surveys report that only single-digit percentages of dog owners brush their dogs’ teeth every day or even every other day. This has to be due, at least in part, to the fact that many dogs (including and especially my own) passionately hate getting their teeth brushed. Some dogs (including and especially my own) seem to view it as a personal affront that they will never forgive and certainly never forget, even if it’s done with the supposedly easy finger-fitted toothbrush, which they somehow hate even more than the normal toothbrush.

My brushing process begins with my dog hiding the moment the thought to brush enters my mind. I’m not sure how he knows, but he always does. I grab his brush, his chicken-flavored toothpaste, and a bag of treats. For the next 30 seconds I hold his little face in my hand and attempt to brush as much as possible while speaking in dulcet tones that do not soothe him in any way. During this time, he completes his own mission: getting as much toothpaste as possible onto the fur around his mouth. He’s great at it. Luckily, his angst always dissolves upon reception of his post-brushing treat.

If I may speak directly to my dog for a moment: I’m sorry about the daily brushing, my sweet friend. I’ll try to get it over with as quickly as possible. But I hope you understand that it must continue. As it turns out, this is something I was always supposed to have been doing.