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Bad Breath Might Mean Trouble With Your Dog's Oral Health

Posted by Jennifer Wicklund, DVM on

For humans, oral hygiene is an important component of our overall health. Brushing, flossing, mouthwash and visits to the dentist are commonplace for most of us. But what about our dogs? Are we doing a good job looking after the oral health of our best friends? For many, the answer is no. 

So, let’s talk about some routine questions veterinarians get regarding dog teeth and oral care. 

Does my dog need routine dental examinations? 

In a word - yes. Your dog's mouth should be examined thoroughly by a veterinarian every year. Your veterinarian will check the teeth and gums, look for any foreign material or growing masses, and also assess the smell of your dog's mouth. Bad breath is one of the first indicators of a problem with a dog's oral health. If there is a problem, a dental cleaning may be required.

What are the most common indicators of oral disease? 

  • bad breath
  • gums that look inflamed or bleed easily
  • teeth that are discolored or loose
  • visible build-up of tartar
  • chewing on only one side of the mouth
  • lumps or bumps in the mouth
  • increase in saliva 

How does a dog's mouth become diseased ? 

Without routine oral cleaning, soft dental plaque builds up on teeth around the gumline. Plaque is full of bacteria that start to invade the gumline and cause infection in the bone surrounding the teeth. Plaque and minerals in saliva combine to harden into tartar (also called calculus). Tartar forms within days if a tooth is not kept clean and it further attracts plaque. This vicious cycle continues to damage gums and underlying bone, eventually leading to periodontal disease. Periodontal disease includes gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) and periodontitis (loss of bone and soft tissue around the teeth). 

Why is periodontal disease so bad? 

Remember that the tooth is like an iceberg. A large portion of the tooth is below the gumline. Despite the symptoms listed above for general oral disease, it is often difficult to see periodontal disease. American Veterinary Dental College studies have shown that by age three, as many as 85% of dogs have periodontal disease. Periodontal disease can cause serious health concerns such as:

  • the development of holes (fistulas) stretching up into the nasal cavity, resulting in nasal discharge;
  • fractures of the jaw due to weakening of the bone from bone loss or bone infection; and
  • seeding of the heart, liver or kidneys with bacteria from the mouth that gets into the bloodstream. 

What happens when my dog has a dental cleaning?

A dental cleaning requires general anesthesia. Why? Because pets cannot be told to hold their mouths open while we clean their teeth! Once your pet is under anesthesia, the teeth are cleaned using an ultrasonic scaler. Dental x-rays should be taken of your pet’s mouth to ensure the health of structures under the gumline, like tooth roots and bone. A probe is used to measure the depth of any pockets surrounding your dog’s teeth, and these are noted in the medical record. Unhealthy teeth will be extracted. The remaining teeth will be polished and often a plaque retardant is spread on the teeth.

What if I’m scared of the risks of general anesthesia for my dog? 

General anesthesia is not risk free, but there are a number of things veterinarians do to mitigate those risks. Bloodwork is recommended prior to anesthesia to ensure your pet has appropriate organ function to handle anesthesia and is free of infection, dehydration, anemia, and blood cell abnormalities. An intravenous (IV) catheter is recommended anytime a pet goes under anesthesia. Placement of an IV catheter prior to induction of anesthesia secures IV access in case of an emergency. IV fluids can be run through the catheter during anesthesia, which helps to keep blood pressure up, allows for more rapid clearance of the anesthesia post-operatively, and keeps your pet hydrated during the procedure. 

While your pet is under anesthesia, technicians will monitor vital signs, including oxygenation levels, heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature and blood pressure. Frequent monitoring of these signs allows subtle changes to be made to anesthetic levels during the procedure, based on your dog’s needs. 

At what age should a dog start dental cleanings? 

Every pet is different, just like every person is different. The need for dental cleanings is affected by many things: breed of dog, diet, genetic predisposition to good or poor oral health, lifestyle, etc. 

Larger dogs may not need a dental cleaning until they are five or six years old. Smaller dogs tend to need a dental cleaning sooner, by the time they are two or three. 

What is the best way to care for my dog’s teeth at home? 

Brushing your dog's teeth is the best thing you can do for your dog's dental health. You can use a dog toothbrush and toothpaste, but it is not necessary. Gauze wrapped around your finger is also effective. Lift up your dog's lips and gently rub the gauze across the teeth. Pay particular attention to the upper teeth near the back of the mouth as that is the most likely area for disease. The more often you brush your pet's teeth, the better. Even brushing once a week will significantly help to stop plaque and tartar build up.

Are edible chew treats effective? 

Edible chew treats, like Greenies or Milk-Bone Brushing Chews, can help to maintain good oral health. The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) awards their seal of approval to products that have been proven to retard plaque and tartar on teeth. Treats that have not been given the VOHC seal have no guarantee of helping reduce plaque or tartar. 

There are also VOHC-approved dental rinses and water additives for those pets that do not like chews or won’t allow brushing. 

Talk to your vet

As always, consult your veterinarian with any questions. Periodontal disease is serious stuff and prevention is key. You are the most important part of your pet’s dental care routine!