Brown teeth, extra-stinky dog breath, red, swollen gums — these are just some of the icky consequences that can result from the lack of proper doggie dental hygiene. Neglecting your pooch’s choppers is a big mistake and can lead to life life-threatening infections and issues for the heart, kidney and liver.

Periodontal disease is the most common disease in pet dogs according to the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC). As with people, periodontal disease in dogs is caused primarily by the accumulation of bacteria. Bacteria build-up forms a thin coating of plaque on the teeth. If isn’t removed, over time it can thicken into tartar, brownish gunk along the gum line that feels sandy to the touch.

Tartar build-up causes gum inflammation (gingivitis). Symptoms of gingivitis can include noticeably decreased appetite (chewing hurts!), difficulty swallowing, excessive drooling and even behavioral changes like exercise intolerance.

If left untreated, gingivitis can weaken the structure of the jaw enough to damage and loosen teeth and cause a gum abscess. Gingivitis also allows bacteria from the mouth to more easily enter the bloodstream, which can lead to infections in vital organ systems.

Some breeds are more susceptible to plaque build-up due to the shapes of their mouths. Short-faced dogs like bulldogs, Shih Tzus, Lhasa Apsos and pugs often require extra dental care. Yorkies, Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, poodles and their mixes are also well known for dental issues.

How to care for your canine’s canines

Unfortunately, without thumbs, dogs can’t use a toothbrush. So you have to brush their teeth for them. Brushing your dog’s teeth is the single most effective way to maintain oral health, says the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC).

Jennifer Shults, DVM, owner of the Animal Emergency Clinic of Cary in North Carolina, admits that for some pet owners. this is a tall order. “Dental care can be a real hassle,” she says. “Many dogs don’t like having their teeth brushed, but with patience and persistence most will accept it — eventually.”

Regular brushings help eliminate plaque before it becomes tartar. Tartar is stubborn and can be removed only with a professional cleaning from a veterinarian.

A few tips to help you brush up on your doggie dental hygiene:

1. Take baby steps. First get your dog accustomed to having your fingers in his mouth. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) recommends dipping your fingers into something he likes, such as peanut butter. As your pet licks your fingers, gently rub them against the sides of his teeth and gums and lift his lips so he gets accustomed to that sensation.

2. Choose your weapon. After a few days of finger play, introduce the brush. “You can use a regular, soft toothbrush made for humans,” Shults says, adding that many of her clients find them easier to use than the finger brushes designed specifically for this purpose.

3. Don’t rely on doggie toothpaste. “The AVDC recommend pet-specific toothpastes that come in flavors that dogs accept, like chicken and seafood. But plain old water is fine,” says Shults. “The brushing motion is what gets the job done.” Dog toothpaste is designed to keep them interested but can have the opposite effect. “Your dog might think it’s a treat and won’t sit for a cleaning,” says Shults, noting that bites from dogs with plaque can cause serious infections in humans.

4. Take a gentle but firm approach. With one hand, gently grab the top of his muzzle and lift his lips. Use the other hand to start brushing. Shultz recommends concentrating on the outsides of the teeth located under the upper lip and lower lip at first. “It shouldn’t be a big deal. Spend about two minutes brushing back and forth a few times a week, if possible,” she says.

5. Gather some treats. Making this a positive experience for your pet will teach him that good things come to dogs who brush! Always deliver enthusiastic praise — along with a favorite treat — when your pup permits dental care.

6. Practice makes perfect. After a few weeks, you should be able to get inside his mouth with the toothbrush. Gently open his jaw and brush the upper and lower teeth on both sides.

Other dental hygiene tips 

Start young. Even though periodontal disease is a problem primarily for dogs over five years old, introducing regular brushing when they’re young can make the job easier down the line. Some experts suggest starting when a puppy is between eight and 16 weeks.

Tired is good. Shults recommends exercising your pet to tire him out before a tooth brushing session. “A tired dog will be more cooperative.”

Never use human toothpaste. “Toothpaste can be swallowed or inhaled when brushing. Our toothpaste contains abrasives and high-foaming detergents that can harm dogs,” Shults warns.

If brushing’s not for you…

Shults admits that many owners simply don’t devote the time to brushing a dog’s teeth on a consistent basis. “If tooth brushing doesn’t work, I often advise products they’re more likely to use, such as plaque-fighting chews, toys and single-use dental wipes. Just be sure whatever method you try is VOHC- approved. Look for the group’s seal on the package.”

The AVDC also says that special diets and foods — including eating a certain type of kibble and foods made with anti-tartar ingredients — can be help with dental health. Ask your vet for recommendations.

Chew toys made from rawhide can help, but they won’t be beneficial without daily use. Cow hooves, dried natural bones or hard nylon products are not recommended by the AVDC. They’re too tough and can break teeth and damage the gums.

Still not willing to take on the plaque monster? Consider the expense of regular tartar removal. Depending on where you live, you can expect to pay at least $500 for a professional cleaning. “Vets don’t take the procedure lightly. Dogs must be put under anesthesia in order to clean the mouth properly,” Shults explains. Lab work and x-rays are often involved and can add up to even more costs.

Unless you can teach your dog to brush his own teeth, do what you can to tame that tartar. Clean dog teeth will keep you smiling, too.

Ann Matturro Gault is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in national magazines and many websites. She lives with her four kids, dog, cat and spouse in New Jersey.