How to soften dog tartar and remove plaque - without a vet

Updated 23 May 2024
Read time: 12 mins
article author
Written by Corinne Homer

We all want our dogs’ gnashers to remain bright and squeaky clean - but what if your dog won’t let you anywhere near their grin with a toothbrush? It’s in these scenarios that, over time, dental care can slip - meaning plaque and tartar can build up and cause issues for your dog.


Plaque and tartar are responsible for a bunch of doggy dental problems, including the onset of painful periodontal disease. What’s more, hardened tartar that is left too long will need to be professionally removed by a vet.


So, how can you take steps at home to protect your dog from the pitfalls of dodgy dental care?


In this article, we’ll go into the differences between plaque and tartar, the risks they pose to your pooch, and how you can avoid these pesky issues by establishing a decent dental routine for your dog at home.


Tartar vs Plaque

Firstly, what’s the difference between tartar and plaque? Well, both substances are bad news for a dog’s dental health, and require peak dental care in order to be kept at bay - but there are slight differences between them.


Plaque is a sticky white substance that accumulates around the gums and surface of the teeth over time, causing bacteria to flourish. Without brushing, plaque builds up and leads to tooth decay, gum disease and tartar.


Tartar is the result of excess plaque, mineralising and becoming hard. It is also known as dental calculus, due to the minerals in saliva calcifying the build-up of plaque.


If you’re wondering ‘what does tartar look like?’ - to the eye, it looks like a yellowish white substance that hardens along the gumline, behind the teeth, in the roof of the mouth and under the tongue. It smells nasty, too - and is a big cause of bad breath in dogs.


Why are plaque and tartar bad for dogs?

Untreated plaque and tartar is full of bacteria that can wear down enamel and in time, lead to cavities, gum disease, infections and eventual tooth loss - all symptoms of periodontal disease.


Though periodontal disease is extremely common (around 8 in 10 dogs will suffer symptoms at some point in their lifetime), it can be very painful and uncomfortable for a pooch - as we all know, toothache is one of the worst pains there is. When these problems occur, chewing and eating becomes much more difficult for a dog, and their quality of life is reduced.


Not only this, bad dental problems can even lead to much more serious health issues in dogs that affect the heart, kidneys and liver. In short, your dog’s teeth need special attention sooner in life rather than later.


How do I know if my dog has plaque?

Your dog likely has plaque if you haven’t brushed their teeth or had them chew a dental stick in a few days, as it doesn’t take long for plaque to appear. If you lift your dog’s lips slightly with your fingers, you may be able to spot plaque gathering around the gumline. It can appear as a white mucus, or a slight yellowing on the surface of the teeth.

A long-haired grey and white dog, with a bobble in its hair and a toothbrush in its mouth, against a pale pink background

Dog tartar build-up: how does it happen?

Now that we’ve established the difference between tartar and plaque, let’s go into some of the ways tartar can cause serious health issues in a pooch, and how you can get rid of tartar, if and when it appears.


Why does my dog have tartar?

As said above, tartar builds up when a dog hasn’t received adequate dental care or tooth brushing to remove plaque. Plaque which hasn’t been cleaned is eventually calcified by the minerals in the dog’s saliva, creating tartar - a hardened, smelly substance that takes up home in parts of a dog’s mouth.


Are certain breeds more prone to dog tartar?

Yes, some dog breeds are more prone to dental issues due to their genetics. Small dog breeds, such as Shih Tzus, Chihuahuas, Toy Poodles and Pomeranians have crowded teeth where plaque and tartar can quickly build.


Other dogs prone to dental problems include Greyhounds, Dachshunds and Cocker Spaniels, and dogs with flat-snouted faces such as Boxers, Pugs and Bulldogs. These dogs will need special attention on their dental care to avoid issues later in life.

A golden, long-haired dachshund taking a dental stick from a pot with toothbrushes, against a pale pink background

Tartar and its implications

It’s vital to clean your dog’s teeth to remove plaque, as tartar that’s left in a dog’s mouth has serious health implications for a pooch, beyond just dental problems. Here are some of the ways in which tartar can cause major issues in a dog’s body…


Health issues due to tartar build-up

  • Bad breath. An obvious one, but tartar is stinky and a huge reason for bad breath in dogs.
  • Gum disease is super common in dogs - but tartar will cause symptoms of gum disease (pain, bleeding or receding gums) much sooner.
  • Periodontal disease is basically late stage gum disease, where infections and abscesses occur in the mouth and in severe cases, lead to tooth loss.
  • Tooth decay. Tartar makes the perfect environment for teeth to decay and rot, causing severe pain and discomfort for a pooch.
  • Heart issues. It’s not totally understood, but there is evidence to suggest ongoing inflammation and infections in the mouth can travel through the body, leading to an immune response that causes heart issues.
  • Kidney and liver dysfunction. For the same reasons, prolonged infection and inflammation in the mouth can cause a bodily response that causes the kidneys and liver to dysfunction.
  • Jaw fractures. Advanced, untreated periodontal disease (caused by tartar build-up) can lead to a weakened jaw, leaving your poor pooch vulnerable to jaw fractures.

Advanced techniques to soften dog tartar

Now we’ve covered the evils of tartar build-up, how do we remove this stuff from your dog’s toothy grin? Once tartar has started to accumulate past a certain point, you’ll likely need to get your dog’s teeth professionally cleaned.


Luckily, there are a few ways to soften the tartar at home to encourage removal.


Tartar-control toothpaste

Using dog toothpaste that targets tartar control is an easy way to take action on tartar straight away. Typically the toothpaste contains abrasive ingredients and enzymes that break down the formation of tartar, making it easier to remove.


Water flossers

Water flossers use a strong stream of water to act as doggy floss. When sprayed between teeth, a water flosser will clean away plaque and soften any tartar build-up that’s occurred. This should be done alongside other dental care, however, as it won’t be that effective on its own.


Dental massage

If your dog allows it, massaging their gums will help stimulate blood flow, increase saliva and disturb any stuck plaque or tartar in their mouth. It can also reduce stress in a dog, and get them used to mouth activity, making it easier to perform other dental care or procedures in future.


Professional dental cleaning

When tartar appears, a lot of pooch parents choose to get their dog’s teeth professionally cleaned, and may even opt for dental lasers to stimulate gums and tackle tough plaque. If your pooch has severe tartar, there’s often no other option but to take them to a vet or doggy dentist to remove it.


How much does dog tartar removal cost?

To get tartar professionally removed, it can cost anything from £150 to £600 depending on where you live, and how thorough the procedure.


Can tartar removal be painful for my dog?

Often, a dog will be put under general anaesthetic to get tough tartar removed. This is because they might be under a lot of stress, discomfort and pain at this stage in their dental care and it’s easier if they’re completely docile for the treatment. Your pooch might be given painkillers for any mouth pain they experience afterwards.


Preventing plaque build-up

Now let’s get into the ways plaque - the cause of tartar - can be removed from your dog’s precious pegs to improve their all-round dental health.


Best plaque removers for dogs

Here are some easy tools and methods to prevent plaque build-up in dogs…


Regular brushing

The hero method for doggy dental care will always be regular brushing, using a dog toothbrush and special dog toothpaste. Getting a dog used to having their teeth brushed from a young age (around 6-months, ideally) means it’ll be much easier to brush them throughout their lives. You can start a brushing routine at any age, though - read more about introducing tooth brushing to your pooch.


Dental chews and chew bones

The next best thing to brushing (but not a replacement for it) is dental chews. This includes healthy dental sticks for dogs, in tasty flavours such as peanut butter, and dental chew bones. At Pooch & Mutt, we also have long-lasting dog chews made of natural fish skin which are great for cleaning teeth. This is because the action of chewing helps stimulate a dog’s gums and breaks down plaque that could be building up on the teeth.


Enzymatic dental treats

Some specialist dental treats contain enzymes such as protease, amylase, and glucose oxidase. These smart enzymes break down the components of plaque on the teeth while your pooch enjoys a chewing session.


Fruit and veggies

Giving a dog a nutritious fruit or veggie to chew on, such as apple chunks or a peeled carrot, is an excellent way for a dog to strengthen and clean their own teeth, and stimulate gums.


Water additives

Dental additives can be given to a dog via their water, containing active ingredients that break down plaque and wash away bacteria in the mouth.


Oral gels and rinses

An oral gel or rinse for dogs is a great way to get some antibacterial solution into a dog’s mouth to freshen up, similar to a mouthwash for humans.


Dental wipes and sprays

Dental wipes are a good supplement to regular dental care, especially if your dog doesn’t like their teeth being brushed at all. The textured wipes are soaked in antibacterial solution and can be rubbed along a dog’s teeth and gums with your fingers - the texture helps rub plaque away. Dental sprays can also help.


Professional cleaning

As mentioned, getting your dog’s teeth cleaned professionally on a regular basis can do wonders for their overall dental health. How often to get your dog’s teeth professionally cleaned depends on how thorough your dog’s dental routine is, but vets recommend a check-up at least once a year to assess your dog’s teeth.

 A long-haired black and brown dog, next to our fish chews, against a pinky/purple background

How to make dog teeth cleaning easy and fun

The issue with so many dog owners is that they want to brush their dog’s teeth, but their dog baulks at the mere glimpse of a toothbrush! We know how frustrating this can be when you want to do what’s best for your dog’s dental health and keep them safe from periodontal disease.


There are ways to slowly introduce teeth cleaning into your dog’s schedule,, so that over time, they get used to the process.


What's the best method for cleaning my dog's teeth?

Regular brushing is the best way to keep your dog’s teeth clean, alongside supplementary dental sticks, chew toys and annual dental check-ups. Here’s our in-depth advice for cleaning a dog’s teeth.


When to seek expert advice…

No matter how hard you try, sometimes you simply can’t get a toothbrush near a dog’s mouth. If you’re starting to worry about your dog’s dental hygiene, or if they don’t enjoy dental sticks or respond well to any alternative dental care methods, don’t shrug it off - be sure to ask a vet for advice.


If you’ve spotted any other signs of plaque build-up, tartar or gum disease (mouth pain, reddening and/or bleeding gums, excessive drooling, bad breath), these are also signs you should get your pooch to a vet as soon as possible. FAQs We’re almost done with this plaque profile!


Here are some final questions on removing plaque and tartar from a dog’s mouth and teeth...


How can coconut oil assist in tartar removal?

There’s some anecdotal evidence that coconut oil can help remove a dog’s tartar. It contains lauric acid, which helps break down tough tartar, and the sweet taste can be pleasant for pooches. You can try rubbing coconut oil into your dog’s mouth as a supplementary treatment to see if it works, but this shouldn’t replace regular dental care.


Can I use human toothpaste for my dog's teeth?

No - it’s best to avoid any human products for dogs, as their bodies are more sensitive than ours and they have different needs. One reason to avoid human toothpaste is it tends to contain fluoride, which is potentially toxic to dogs if ingested. Special dog toothpastes are a safer option, and they often come in meaty flavours which are tastier for them.


Can dog food clean my dog's teeth?

Though evidence is limited, some vets recommend switching to dry dog food instead of wet food for dental care, as the crunchiness of dry food may help clean plaque off a dog’s teeth (in the same way that chewing dental sticks would). If your dog’s on a wet food diet, perhaps try introducing a handful of dry food to see if this helps?


If you want to supplement your pooch’s tooth-brushing routine with nutritious dental treats, try our range of tasty dental sticks for dogs and our nifty long-lasting chews.

Comments (3)

This is a really informative article, thank you!

Corinne - Apr 16 2024

I clean my dog’s teach almost daily. The vet says they are good for a 7yr old dog, but I can’t get them clean where they overlap when his mouth is closed, eg the canines and lower front incisors.
His breath is sweet and has no discomfort.
Any suggestions?

Joan - Jul 04 2024
Pooch Admin

Hi Joan,
You could always try a water flosser, or you can get additives that you can include in your dogs meal to help remove plaque. If you would like any further advice on this, reach out to the team on [email protected] :)

Team Pooch - Jul 04 2024

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