4 Ways to Soften Dog Tartar at Home

While professional tartar removal may be necessary in some cases, there are things pet parents can do to soften dog tartar at home. Learn how.

May 29, 2024·8 min read
4 Ways to Soften Dog Tartar at Home

Dental issues are very common in dogs. Over 80 percent of dogs over the age of 3 years have some degree of periodontal disease, and the buildup of tartar is a major contributing factor. While preventing tartar build-up is ideal, pet parents may be able to soften dog tartar and encourage tartar breakdown with at-home dental care. 

What Is Dog Tartar? 

Tartar, sometimes called dental calculus, is a buildup of hardened material on your dog’s teeth and along their gumline. If plaque remains on the teeth, it will harden into tartar. Plaque can turn into tartar on a dog’s teeth within several days. 

Tartar usually has a yellowish-brown or chalky appearance. Dog tartar is hard to the touch because of the mineralization that occurs as plaque turns to tartar. 

Breeds who have misaligned teeth or crowded mouths, such as dogs with flat faces (brachycephalic), are prone to tartar buildup. Examples of breeds with a higher susceptibility to tartar buildup include Chihuahuas, Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, Yorkshire Terriers, Shih-Tzus, Dachshunds, and Pugs. 

The buildup of plaque and tartar can lead to periodontal disease. Bacteria hiding around the tartar and within plaque can cause inflammation along the gumline (gingivitis) and the development of pockets around the teeth. Eventually, this infection can lead to bone loss within the tooth socket and eventual loss of the tooth. 

Plaque Vs. Tartar in Dogs: What’s the Difference? 

Plaque is the predecessor to tartar and begins to form immediately after a meal. Plaque is removed by regularly brushing your dog’s teeth. 

When left on the tooth for several days, plaque begins to mineralize into tartar. Tartar is not easily brushed away from the teeth like plaque. As a result, tartar provides a location for bacteria to hide out. Tartar can also allow for more plaque to adhere to the tooth, beginning a vicious cycle. 

Dog Dental Problems Caused by Tartar 

The overriding dental issue caused by dental tartar in dogs is periodontal disease. As plaque and tartar accumulate along and under the gumline, the associated bacteria cause inflammation of the gums (gingivitis), the development of deep pockets around the teeth, and decay of the structures around the teeth. Untreated periodontal disease in dogs often leads to the loss of the affected tooth or teeth. 

Progression of periodontal disease and the associated bone loss can also lead to the development of oronasal fistulas (holes from mouth to nose), abscesses in the mouth, and jaw fractures. The prevention and management of tartar is a good way to prevent periodontal disease from progressing to this level. 

The build-up of tartar on a dog’s teeth also contributes to bad breath, or halitosis, which certainly makes dog kisses less adorable. 

Dog Tartar Stages 

Dental staging in dogs has more to do with overall periodontal disease than with tartar itself, but tartar plays a role in the grading scheme. Most often, the grading scheme used has four grades, with the grade subjectively determined by a veterinarian or veterinary dentist. 

Grade 1: There is mild tartar on the dog’s teeth, and gingivitis is minimal to mild. 

Grade 2: A moderate amount of tartar is present, and gingivitis is moderate. The dog may have bad breath. 

Grade 3: Dental calculus is heavy, and gingivitis is prominent. The pet is likely to need at least one tooth extracted. The breath will have a foul odor. 

Grade 4: Severe build-up of dental calculus and severe gingivitis are present. Periodontal disease is advanced such that multiple teeth will need to be extracted. The gums may have recessed, with root exposure on one or more teeth. 

How to Soften Dog Tartar: 4 Things to Try 

The best way to manage dog tartar is to prevent it from building up in the first place! This means regular brushing of teeth (preferably daily), using veterinarian-recommended at-home dental care products, and scheduling regular dental cleanings with a veterinarian.  

Professional dog dental cleanings are the best dog tartar removal method. However, there are some steps you can take at home to help soften dog tartar or break it up. 

1. Brush Your Dog’s Teeth 

Although regularly brushing your dog’s teeth is better for preventing tartar than softening or removing it, some pet-friendly toothpastes have ingredients or enzymes that help to break down tartar so that it’s easier to remove. The motion of the bristles along the tartar may also help to chip some of the calculus away from the tooth. Keep in mind that brushing teeth does not reach the plaque and/or tartar that builds up under the gumline. 

If you wish to use tooth brushing as part of a dental care routine, veterinarians recommend brushing the teeth at least once daily. To prevent tartar formation, the teeth should be brushed at least three times weekly as a minimum. You should aim to brush each side of the mouth for at least 30 seconds. Use pet-friendly toothpastes, as toothpastes intended for people are not safe for pets

2. Get Your Dog Chewing 

Look for dog dental products that encourage chewing. Certain shapes and features scrape against a dog’s teeth while pups are chewing and chomping, helping to scrape tartar away. Plus, time spent gnawing gives dogs mental and physical stimulation as a bonus.  

4. Play with Dental Chew Toys 

Chew toys designed to help with dental care reduce tartar through the scrubbing of the teeth as the dog chews. While dental chew toys are not a well-established area of dental care for dogs, these toys may help and are unlikely to cause harm. At the very least, they’ll provide your dog with mental stimulation and a fun time! 

5. Feed a Dental Diet 

Dental diets are clinically proven to reduce plaque and tartar buildup. These diets usually contain a specific fiber matrix that scrubs at the tooth as the dog chews, cleaning all the way up to the gumline. Essentially, your dog is brushing their own teeth as they chew their food! 

Importantly, these diets also meet all your pet’s nutritional needs while having the added benefit of improving oral health. These diets usually require a veterinary prescription. 

Things to Avoid for Dog Dental Health 

Do not give dogs bones to soften dog tartar. While some pet parents believe that chewing bones will help to scrub away tartar, you should avoid letting your dog chew on bones. Because of how hard bones are, they often lead to fractured teeth, which is the second most prominent dental issue in dogs following periodontal disease. Bones can also cause blockages in your dog’s stomach or gastrointestinal tract if swallowed. Cooked bones are more brittle and can break apart, leading to injury in your dog’s mouth, throat, or gastrointestinal tract. 

Avoid electric flossers, unless recommended by your veterinarian. Do not attempt to use a dog water flosser or waterpik unless your veterinarian recommends it. These products are often frightening to dogs, can be painful depending on the setting, and carry the risk of your dog aspirating the water. 

When to Seek Professional Dog Tartar Removal 

If your dog has significant tartar build-up, it’s a good idea to see a veterinarian for an evaluation prior to moving forward with at-home dental care. Your veterinarian can determine if your pet would benefit from a professional dental cleaning.  

Your veterinarian is your best source for your pet’s individual dental care needs. Keep in mind that some tartar may need to be professionally removed by a veterinarian, especially if it’s building up around and under the gums. 

If you notice any of the following signs, you definitely want to seek veterinary attention: 

  • Significant inflammation/redness along the gumline 
  • Excessive bleeding along the gumline (a small amount when first starting with brushing is to be expected) 
  • Exposure of the tooth roots or recession of the gums 
  • Fractured teeth 
  • Mass(es) in the mouth 
  • Wounds or sores in the mouth 

If your dog has tartar on their teeth, take control of their dental health before dental disease further progresses. Preventative dental care will keep your dog’s teeth and gums healthy.. At-home management of dental tartar is one way you can protect your pet’s dental health. As always, speak with your veterinarian before beginning a new oral health care routine. 

Rhiannon Koehler, DVMR

Rhiannon Koehler, DVM

Dr. Rhiannon Koehler is a veterinary writer who aims to provide accurate, veterinarian-written content that pet parents can use to make better health decisions for their pets. As the founder of Evergreen Medical Writing, LLC, her writing is exclusively in the veterinary and biomedical spaces. In addition to writing new content, Dr. Koehler also provides her veterinary expertise as a medical reviewer, ensuring content is medically accurate and reflects the most current veterinary practices. Clinically, Dr. Koehler mostly works with animal shelters, low-cost clinics, and wellness clinics. She believes strongly in the mission of such organizations to provide affordable care to underprivileged pets and families. She graduated from the University of Missouri with her Doctor in Veterinary Medicine and her Masters in Public Health and has over a decade of experience in the veterinary industry.

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The information contained within this site is not intended as a substitute for professional medical or veterinary advice. PetLab Co. is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If your pet has, or you suspect your pet has any medical condition, you are urged to consult your veterinarian. Medical conditions can only be diagnosed by a licensed veterinarian. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Results May Vary. Not intended for human consumption. Please consult your veterinarian regarding any change in treatment or supplementation.
*In Amazon Pet Health Category in 2022
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