Dental disease and home dental care

What is dental disease? 

Halitosis, or bad breath, is often the first thing someone will first notice when their dog has dental disease.  

The process starts with plaque, a sticky build-up of bacteria (also known as a biofilm) on the surface of the teeth. Within as short as 24 hours, minerals in saliva, such as calcium, will begin to harden the plaque into what we call dental tartar (or calculus).  

The bacteria associated with plaque and tartar lead to infection and inflammation in the gums, often referred to as gingivitis. Periodontitis occurs as the infection progresses to bone loss and, eventually, tooth loss.  

What problems does it cause? 

In addition to bad breath, dental disease may result in oral pain and difficulty eating.  

More advanced infections can lead to bacteria entering the blood stream. Also known as bacteremia, research has shown that this can cause problems in other parts of the body including the kidneys, liver and heart.   

What are the signs of dental disease? 

Contact your vet if you notice any of the following with your dog: 

  • Difficulty eating or decreased appetite  

  • Bad breath 

  • Bleeding from the mouth 

  • Swelling on the jaw or face 

  • Drooling 

  • Nasal discharge (can be bloody) 

How can it be prevented? 

Routine examinations

Your veterinarian will perform a conscious (awake) exam of your dog’s mouth at annual visits, or more often if recommended based on your dog’s age, breed, dental health and medical history.   

Home dental care

There is much that can be done at home to help reduce the incidence of dental disease. 

  • Brushing your dog’s teeth is the most effective method of home care for preventing dental disease.  

  • In addition to brushing — or if brushing isn’t possible — there are other options to help reduce plaque and tartar, including:  

    • Dental diets 

    • Dental chews and treats  

    • Water additives, oral gels and sprays  

  • It is crucial to provide your dog safe chewing options. Chewing is an important activity for both dental health and overall enrichment. However, chewing hard objects can result in either gradually wearing or fracturing of teeth. Use caution when offering your dog any hard objects including bones, antlers, hooves, rawhide and hard manufactured toys. Some of these items can also present a hazard for gastrointestinal damage or obstruction.    

    • The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) website provides a list of accepted dental products.  

    • Please consult your veterinarian for appropriate recommendations for your dog.  

How is existing dental disease treated? 

A thorough oral examination, including dental radiographs (X-rays), is only possible when your dog is anesthetized. The teeth will then be cleaned — meaning that all of the plaque and calculus above and below the gum line will be removed with both ultrasonic and hand scalers.   

In addition to the teeth and gums, the entire mouth is examined for signs of disease — including under the tongue, the tongue itself, the tonsils, hard and soft palates, and the lips. Teeth may require extraction (removal) if they are loose, fractured or have significant bone loss. Teeth with caries (cavities) are uncommon in dogs but may be candidates for restoration. Similarly, some fractured teeth can be repaired with root canal therapy. Your veterinarian may refer you to a veterinary dentist for advanced procedures.  

After your dog has recovered from the professional care that was provided, follow your veterinarian’s recommendations for resuming appropriate home dental care.