Pet Dental Care: A vet’s guide to keeping your dog’s mouth healthy
Updated: Feb 7
Answer honestly – do you brush your dog’s teeth twice a day? No? Well, you aren’t alone. Whilst toothbrushing is common for humans, it’s something we often miss out with when it comes to our dogs. You might even be wondering how you brush a dog’s teeth – after all, you can hardly ask them to spit into the sink!
We’re going to take a look at some of the types of dental disease your dog might suffer with, how to get rid of your dog’s bad breath, and how to prevent dental problems getting started in the first place.
1. What causes dogs to have bad breath?
Dogs can have bad breath for a number of reasons. By far the most common reason for bad breath in dogs is periodontal disease.
This is a progressive destruction of the teeth, gums, and jawbone by bacteria and inflammation, and it affects most dogs at some point in their lives. Studies can’t agree on how common dental disease in dogs is – but the highest estimate was three quarters of dogs over the age of two, and 100% of dogs over the age of 8.
Other diseases can also cause a dog’s bad breath. Dogs with smelly breath might have dental abscesses, food or bones stuck between the teeth, or infected wounds on the inside of the mouth from chewing on sticks. Dogs that drool a lot or who have beards that get wet or stuck in their food can also smell bad near their mouths due to bacteria and yeasts living on the skin here.
2. Signs your dog may have dental disease?
So, if dental disease is so common, how can you check whether your dog is affected? Well, periodontitis is split into two stages. The first is gingivitis (gum disease).
Here, the gums become inflamed – you might see that the gums are red where they join the teeth, you may see blood on chew toys, and you may also notice the beginnings of a bad smell.
Once gingivitis progresses to periodontitis, the symptoms worsen. Alongside bad breath, you may notice green-grey tartar on your pet’s teeth, especially on the canines and upper molars, at the back of the mouth.
The gums will continue to become more inflamed and prone to bleeding. You may also notice the subtle signs of dental pain such as:
• Toying with food
• Picking up kibble and dropping it
• Preference for softer foods
• Favouring one side of the mouth when chewing
• Pawing at the mouth, or rubbing it on furniture
• Refusal to play with toys or chew
• Unexplained grumpiness or even aggression
Periodontitis eventually leads to tooth loss, so you might notice gaps in your dog’s mouth or find teeth embedded in toys or dropped around the house.
The problem with dental disease is that it’s easy for pet parents to think of bad breath as being normal, and because the teeth are hidden it’s easy to ignore.
3. Dangers of gum disease in pets?
Ignoring dental disease is a problem though. Whilst gingivitis is reversible, periodontitis isn’t. The structures damaged in periodontitis will never recover, so catching dental disease as early as possible gives us the best chance of allowing your dog to keep his teeth.
But it’s not just tooth loss that you have to worry about.
The bacteria and inflammation can eat away at the bones of the jaw, causing holes (fistulas) and even making the bone so weak that it can break. And because the bacteria are released into the blood stream when a dog chews, periodontitis has been linked to other diseases. Dogs with periodontitis therefore have a higher risk of kidney infections, renal failure, liver disease, and heart disease.
4. When to see a vet?
If you suspect your dog might have dental problems, it’s best to see a vet sooner rather than later. Early-stage problems can be reversed with the right treatments and advice, but advanced periodontitis becomes a battle to save each and every tooth and keep your dog pain-free.
As soon as you notice bad breath, any change to the colour of the teeth, or any of the signs listed above, make an appointment with your vet for an examination.
Your dog should have his teeth examined by a vet at least once a year, at his annual vaccinations. Ideally, dogs over the age of 3 should have a 6-monthly check – this may be conducted by a veterinary nurse and may be free as part of your practice health plan. In between these appointments, you should be checking your dog’s teeth regularly – ideally daily whilst you’re carrying out home care.
5. Different preventative measures available?
You’ll be pleased to hear that periodontitis can be prevented or slowed by home dog dental care that costs little to do! The importance of dental care for dogs cannot be understated, so read on for dog oral hygiene tips!
The best prevention for periodontitis is tooth brushing. As in humans, brushing your dog’s teeth removes plaque, preventing it from hardening into tartar. Whilst ideally you would brush your dog’s teeth twice daily, every other day is better than nothing and more achievable for most! Use a dog-safe toothpaste and a soft brush, and build up slowly so as not to scare your dog.
Alongside toothbrushing (or instead of, if your dog is uncooperative), you can use dental chews to keep your dog’s teeth healthier. Be warned though, not all chews are created equal and many of them are high in calories. Ask your vet for a recommendation, or choose an option from the Veterinary Oral Health Council list of accepted products.
Dog breath fresheners and mouthwashes can also be helpful to add into a home care regime. These often contain herbs like peppermint, which have positive effects on gingivitis as well as anti-microbial effects. It also helps dental pain, and provides that fresh-breath smell.
Citric acid, usually in the form of juices from the citrus family such as orange or grapefruit, may also be used for their anti-inflammatory effects. Breath fresheners for dogs are not sufficient to use alone for your dog’s oral health care regime, but they can help.
It’s also important to remember that, even if you do all of this, you might still need to get your dog’s teeth professionally cleaned by a vet.
After all, we humans brush twice daily and still visit the hygienist regularly! Your vet will advise how often dog dental cleaning is necessary, depending on your dog’s dental history.
Dental disease is one of the most common conditions facing our dogs, with some studies saying that up to 100% of older dogs are affected. Preventative measures should be taken by all pet parents and should include teeth cleaning for dogs and mouthwashes to help reduce the risk of dental problems.
7. FAQs about Dental Disease in Dogs
How do I clean my dog's teeth?
The best way to clean your dog’s teeth is using a dog-safe toothpaste and a soft-bristled brush. At first, you should just allow your dog to lick the toothpaste from the brush, building up to putting the brush in their mouth. Try to brush your dog’s teeth daily wherever possible.
What can I give for my dog’s bad breath?
If your dog has bad breath, you should see a vet as soon as possible to rule out dental disease and other oral conditions. Once the vet has given your dog the all-clear, a dog-safe breath-freshening mouthwash may help to keep the smell to a minimum – and don’t forget to brush your dog’s teeth regularly!
How can I clean my dog's teeth without going to the vet?
Daily tooth brushing is the best way to keep your dog’s teeth clean. Unfortunately, once your dog has developed periodontitis, they’ll need to have their teeth cleaned by the vet so that you’ve got a ‘clean slate’ to work with. Whilst dog groomers may advertise ‘anaesthesia-free dental cleanings’ these are not recommended as they cause pain and stress, as well as missing the most important part of the teeth – the bit below the gum line.
What happens if I don't clean my dog's teeth?
If you don’t clean your dog’s teeth, they’ll develop gingivitis and eventually periodontitis. This severe disease affects almost all adult dogs and causes them pain, tooth loss, jaw bone destruction, and even increases risks of diseases of the kidneys, liver, and heart. The sooner you start tooth cleaning, the less likely these things are to occur.
What is the cost of having a dog's teeth cleaned?
The cost of a full dental cleaning will vary between region, with dog size, with the level of disease, and with the equipment available at the vets, so you should call your clinic to get an estimate. Dental costs are extremely hard to predict as a full examination cannot be done until your dog is under the anaesthetic, so make sure you talk to your vet about your budget and get them to call you if there are unexpected costs and complications.
Article written by Dr. Joanna Woodnutt - Veterinary Practitioner / Veterinary Writer