If you watch television, you’re sure to see commercials advertising toothpaste, tooth whitening systems and other dental procedures.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010, America spent an estimated $108 billion dollars on dental care. Despite all this brushing, flossing, straightening and whitening, many people don’t realize they’re neglecting the mouths of one very important family member, the dog. February is National Pet Dental Health Month, so let’s talk teeth.

According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, more than 80 percent of dogs develop gum disease by the time they’re three. Bacteria, combined with saliva and food debris, can cause plaque formulations.

As bacteria grows in the plaque, it turns to tartar. This plaque and tartar buildup leads to periodontal disease, the most common dental condition affecting dogs. Periodontal disease causes red, swollen and tender gums, receding gums, bleeding, pain, bad breath and tooth loss. The inflammation and infection associated with it may also damage other organs such as the heart, liver, and kidneys. As loving dog owners, it’s important that we not neglect this critical aspect of our pet’s health.

To facilitate your dog’s dental care, it is best to take a multi-pronged approach. The first step is to feed your dog a hard kibble dog food rather than canned food. Crunchy kibble will scrub the tooth’s surfaces as your dog eats, while soft food will often sit on the tooth. Giving your dog good chew toys is also important. The best chew toys for tooth health are things like natural bones, Nylabones and antlers. As your dog chews them, they help keep the tooth surfaces clean.  Rope bones can also be great for this purpose, but be careful.  If your dog chews the bone apart and ingests the individual strings, they can cause serious damage, so rope bones should be supervised toys only.

If you ate corn chips on a daily basis, and chewed on a toothpick for an hour after every meal, but didn’t brush your teeth, you’d keep your dentist busy. By the same token, the steps above are not enough to ensure good dental health for your dog. There is no substitute for brushing his teeth.

The most critical element in brushing your dog’s teeth is doggy toothpaste.  Unlike human toothpaste, which is not intended for consumption, dog toothpaste is meant to be swallowed. Since your dog can’t “rinse and spit,” this is important.

Before you try to brush your dog’s teeth, get him used to having his mouth handled. Start out slowly and incorporate lots of praise as you lift his lips and touch his teeth. Once he’s gotten accustomed to you touching his mouth, introduce him to the toothbrush you’ll be using.

There are many kinds of brushes, including fingertip brushes and handled toothbrushes similar to, but shaped differently than, human toothbrushes. Let the dog sniff and lick the toothbrush, and then touch it to just one or two teeth at a time.

Get him accustomed to the toothpaste as well, by letting him smell it and lick it off your fingers.  When he’s comfortable with you handling his mouth, the brush and the paste, start the brushing process.

Initially you might only do one or two teeth, but as he gets used to it, you can gradually incorporate the whole mouth. Hold the brush at a 45 degree angle, and make sure you’re getting the gum line. If you have a puppy, start brushing when he’s a baby.

Veterinary dentists recommend you brush your dog’s teeth daily and many manufacturers of doggy tooth products suggest a minimum of three times per week.

Obviously, the more often you do this the better, but if you brush your dog’s teeth even weekly, it’s a positive step towards better health. On the days you don’t brush, consider using an oral solution, spray or water additive designed for the teeth.

Remember though, that just as mouthwash doesn’t replace your toothbrush, these products aren’t a substitute for brushing.

Finally, remember to have your veterinarian check your dog’s