Dental disease in dogs


Dental disease is one of the most common conditions affecting pet dogs and it can have a big effect on a dog's wellbeing and overall health, as David Babington BVetMed MRCVS explains...

Just imagine what your teeth would be like if you never brushed them! It's not a pleasant thought is it? How about your own dog? Do you regularly check his teeth? Most humans look after their teeth. We visit a dentist reasonably regularly and brush/floss on at least a twice daily basis. Unfortunately in many cases our pets are not so lucky!

Around 85% of dogs over 4 years of age will have a degree of what's called Periodontal Dental Disease. This is an inflammatory disease of the supporting structures of the teeth affecting the gums and other areas. It starts with the formation of Plaque. This is a combination of bacteria, bits of food, and saliva that sticks to teeth on a daily basis.

Once present plaque can only be removed by mechanical brushing or dental instruments. This plaque collects below the gum line and the gum starts to fall away from the tooth, creating what's known as a dental Pocket. The formation of more plaque also damages the attachments holding the tooth in place and the underlying bone. At this point, veterinary attention is necessary to combat the process as simple brushing will not remove plaque from these deep areas. In time, if the plaque is left, it will become mineralized and hard Tartar or Calculus will be formed. 

The first stage of dental disease in dogs is called Gingivitis. This is completely reversible with proper home care and veterinary attention. If left untreated, progression to periodontal disease will be the inevitable next stage but with appropriate dental treatment the disease can still be halted.

Stage 4 dental disease with over 50% loss of tooth attachment

Dental disease in dogs

Symptoms of early dental problems in dogs may include bad breath, red or even bleeding gums, the presence of hard calculus and loose or missing teeth. The increased levels of bacteria may cause problems elsewhere in the body if they enter the bloodstream. Major organs such as the heart, liver or kidneys may be affected.

Many dogs will continue to eat even though they have appalling mouths with sore gums and loose teeth. It's quite common after performing a dental procedure for owners to report that their dog seems a lot brighter and happier afterwards. The presence of dental disease was obviously affecting the dog's behaviour even though it wasn't ‘off' its food.

Periodontal disease in the dog – note the reddened, receding gums and presence of calculus.

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Causes of dental disease in dogs

Some of the smaller breeds of dog are more prone to developing dental disease as are those dogs fed a mainly soft diet. Dogs with overcrowded teeth are also more at risk, as are those with certain diseases such as diabetes and other hormonal problems.

How to prevent dental disease in dogs

It may be obvious, but the more a dog chews, the cleaner the teeth become. This is why hard, dry foods tend to create less plaque than soft foods. There are many low-calorie chews available now from pet shops that have been designed specifically to help reduce plaque sticking to teeth.

A dog's teeth should ideally be brushed on a daily basis. A soft pet toothbrush with a long handle should be used or a finger brush can be a good choice. Toothpaste is available specifically for dogs which contains enzymes and fluorides. With patience and a gentle touch, most dogs will accept the process.

Once dental disease involving pocket formation is present, a dental procedure performed by a vet will be necessary to treat the disease. X-rays may be taken to determine the extent of the problem. Under an anaesthetic, the dogs teeth will be scaled clean using an ultrasonic scaler and the teeth will then be polished smooth to reduce further plaque formation. Hand instruments will be used to remove calculus and plaque from the pockets between the gums and the teeth. In some cases the pockets themselves may be surgically treated and loose teeth removed.

So in a nutshell, it's not inevitable that your dog has to suffer from dental disease. Taking a positive role in your dog's dental health with regular brushing and the use of appropriate hard foods and chews will reduce disease, bad-breath and potentially life-threatening heart and kidney diseases.