Have you ever held your breath while your faithful companion dutifully pants in your face or gives you a big slobbery, smelly kiss? Most dog owners are familiar with stinky breath. In fact, many expect it, assuming that bad breath comes with the territory of owning a dog—something as canine as hole digging or tail wagging. What many pet owners are unaware of is that bad breath not only isn’t normal, it can also be a sign of a major problem.
Gum disease in dogs is similar to that in humans. Also called gingivitis or periodontal disease, gum disease is caused by the build-up of plaque — a soft, sticky film of bacteria that coats the teeth both above and below the gum line. It is essentially a bacterial infection of the mouth, ranging from mildly inflamed gums to severe disease which can result in tooth decay and even bone loss.
According to Dr. Kirstin Bull of Burnt Fork Veterinary Hospital, one of the first signs of gum disease, and the one that pet owners are most likely to notice, is bad breath.
“Many owners may also notice recession of the gums away from the teeth or significant plaque,” said Bull. “Pets should see a veterinarian if there is bad breath, sensitivity when eating, swollen areas on the face or bleeding gums.”
Since dogs don’t brush their teeth like their human counterparts, it can be easy for this plaque to build up, and the signs — like stinky breath –often go unnoticed. Unfortunately, this can be a big problem.
“Ultimately, gum disease can lead to more serious issues, like infection of the bone (osteomyelitis), fistulas (holes between the mouth and the sinuses) or abscesses under the tooth,” said Bull. “The mouth is a gateway to the rest of the body, so bacteria from periodontal disease can also easily spread to other areas, like the heart or liver.”
If you suspect your dog has gum disease, you should take him to the vet — this isn’t an issue that can be treated at home. What can be done at home is preventative care. Brushing your dog’s teeth with a toothpaste formulated specially for your pet is a great way to keep plaque at bay, according to Bull. Brushing your dog’s teeth can be difficult if he isn’t used to it, so you may need to start slow and offer lots of praise, as well as find an extra set of hands. Dental chew toys, water additives, and treats can also help. Some dental products, including our Bye, Bye Dog Breath, even contain helpful enzymes to assist in breaking down the plaque. Despite these at-home solutions, it is still imperative to take your dog to the vet for regular cleanings.
“Many times, brushing the teeth or giving dental chews is not enough and a pet may need to go under anesthesia and have a dental cleaning to address their periodontal disease,” said Bull. “When we clean a dog’s teeth under anesthesia, we use an ultrasonic scaling tool that removes the plaque hiding under the gum line causing disease. We also polish the teeth which helps to decrease future build up of plaque.”
During the cleaning process is also a great time for vets to more carefully check the state of your pet’s mouth.
“Sometimes it is difficult to fully evaluate the health of the teeth and surrounding tissues until they are cleaned and all the tartar is removed,” said Bull. “We can take X-rays of the teeth once the patient is anesthetized. If there are fractures of teeth, dental cavities or abscesses at the root of a tooth, the affected tooth is generally extracted by a veterinarian.”
An ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure, as the old saying goes. Even if you do not think your dog has gum disease, it’s still important for them to get their teeth checked at least once per year, according to Bull. This way, any plaque buildup can be stopped in its tracks before it becomes a problem.
“Every pet should be examined by a veterinarian to determine if periodontal disease exists and to determine the appropriate next steps, which may involve a dental cleaning and possible extractions under anesthesia,” said Bull. “Some dogs have their teeth cleaned at a vet clinic one to two times a year to keep their mouths healthy!”