Signs of Dental Disease in Dogs, and What Can Be Done About It

Signs of dental disease in dogs include bad breath, bleeding gums and gum loss. We run down the symptoms of dog periodontal disease.

Signs of dental disease in dogs Unlike you, your dog doesn’t brush his teeth two or three times a day to make sure his smile is sparkling white and his breath is fresh. Overseeing our pets’ dental health is something that we, as pet parents, need to do in order to ensure our animal companions a long and healthy life.

The bacterium that accumulates in your dog’s mouth and that causes periodontal disease is the same kind that can travel throughout his body and affect his kidneys, lungs, and heart. If you know what to look for when it comes to your dog’s teeth and mouth, you can be better prepared to deal with any problems that may arise.

Signs and Symptoms of Periodontal Disease

Detecting dental disease in your dog can be as simple as opening his mouth, looking inside at his teeth and gums, and smelling his breath. I have listed some of the things you should look for below:

  • Bad Breath: The bacteria from decaying food that causes gingivitis and infection in your dog’s mouth also results in abnormally bad breath. We don’t expect doggy breath to be “minty fresh,” but any type of sour, acrid odor is indicative of some kind of disease process in your pet’s mouth or other internal organs. (Yes, cats can have bad breath too.)
  • Inflamed Gums: Also called “gingivitis,” the disease that causes your dog’s red, inflamed and sometimes bleeding gums is a result of the bacteria that linger in his mouth from food left in his teeth. This bacterium typically gathers under the gum line around the roots of the teeth and can cause an infection that leads to tooth loss, bone degeneration and, in severe cases, possible major organ disease.
  • Plaque and Calculus: Dental plaque is composed of the food particles and saliva that mix together to form a sticky film on your dog’s teeth. If the plaque is left on the teeth, it will harden into a thick, bone-like formation called calculus (or tartar), which can cover the entire tooth and hide an underlying infection.
  • Swollen Jaw: Often, when infection gathers around the tooth root and creates an abscess, swelling of the jaw occurs that is visible to the naked eye. There will be a lump either on the lower jaw close to your pup’s neck or on the upper jaw just under his eye socket. Sometimes, if the abscess becomes large enough to burst, it will break through the skin covering it and you’ll see pus seeping onto your dog’s fur from a small hole in the lump.
  • Trouble Chewing: You may notice that your dog is having trouble chewing his food, or that he’s stopped chewing altogether and is just gulping it down. If you look inside his mouth, you may also see loose or missing teeth where the tooth roots have detached from the bone because of disease. Rotting, infected teeth and gums can be extremely painful, and loose teeth can cause your pet to stop using his mouth to break up his food.
  • Nasal Discharge and Sneezing: When your dog’s gums become infected on his maxilla (upper jaw), the roots of the teeth can abscess, creating pockets of pus and infection that can reach up into his sinus cavities. When the sinuses become infected, your pup can develop a runny nose and begin sneezing.

In this quick video, veterinarian Glenn Brigden, DVM, provides an overview of periodontal disease. Watch this first, then we’ll discuss your options upon diagnosis:

How to Take Care of Your Dog’s Dental Disease

Once your pet shows any of the symptoms discussed above, scheduling him for a veterinary dental cleaning is the only sure way to effect a cure for his periodontal disease.

Your veterinarian may request a blood screen to detect any signs of systemic organ problems before placing your dog under anesthesia for the dental cleaning, particularly if your dog is a senior or has some other diagnosed illness.

After the dog is anesthetized, a trained veterinary technician will take X-rays of the teeth to determine if there are any pockets or abscesses around the tooth roots, and to look for any bone deterioration.

The vet tech scrapes the teeth free of any plaque and cleans them with a high-powered, ultra-sonic water pick. The water pick vibrates at such a high rate of speed that any hard calculus formed on the teeth is easily broken up and removed. After the initial cleaning, the technician scrapes and probes underneath the gum line looking for any deep pockets of infection.

If any of the teeth need to be pulled because they are broken or the roots are no longer holding the teeth in place, the veterinarian steps in to perform this part of the procedure. The vet may also inject any needed antibiotics into the gum cavity, and suture the hole closed if it is too large to heal on its own.

Once your dog’s teeth are polished and his mouth is rinsed with an antibiotic wash, he is allowed to awaken from the anesthesia, and you should be able to take him home the same day. Typically, the veterinarian prescribes antibiotics for you to administer to your dog to clear up any remaining bacterial infection.

This video, from Kimberly Crest Veterinary Hospital in Davenport, Iowa, shows the cleaning process from beginning to end:

What Else Can You Do for a Dog With Periodontal Disease?

Here are some more tips:

  • A new dental vaccine called the porphyromonas vaccine has been developed to destroy the types of bacteria that cause periodontal disease in dogs. These particular strains of bacteria are linked to canine lung, kidney and heart disease and have been known to effect bone loss in a dog’s jaws. They have also been shown to be a major cause of aspiration pneumonia in humans. The vaccine is given every six to 12 months as a subcutaneous injection (under the skin) and only after a veterinary cleaning. Ask your veterinarian about the vaccine at your next regular visit.
  • Home brushing should be your next step in helping to prevent dental disease in your dog. You can buy a doggy toothbrush and toothpaste from your veterinarian or a pet store. Brush the teeth daily, using downward strokes on the outside of the teeth only. You won’t need to brush the inner portions of the mouth because your dog’s tongue and saliva clean those areas. Note: Please DO NOT use human toothpaste to clean a dog’s teeth. Human products contain chemicals that can be harmful to your pet’s digestive tract.
  • Dental chew toys and treats can also be purchased from your vet, the pet store or online, and they are manufactured to help clean your dog’s teeth as he chews on them. We all know dogs like to chew on things, so finding an appropriate toy or treat that also removes the plaque on his teeth while he chews can be part of the solution to his dental issues. Just make sure to give him a treat or toy that best fits his size, because some toys meant for larger breeds can cause tooth and jaw fractures in smaller pets.
  • Switching to kibble, or a hard food, can be beneficial for your pup’s dental health as it, too, scrapes his teeth clean as he chews during the day. You’ll want to make sure to get the kibble in a size to fit his mouth, and one that has all the proper nutrients for his health.

The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that 85 percent of dogs over the age of 3 have some sort of periodontal disease. Keeping your dog’s teeth and gums clean and infection-free can mean a difference in years when it comes to your pet’s life.

Finally — just to drive the point home one more time — in the video below, veterinarian Dean Sim talks about the tell-tale signs of dental problems:

Additional Resources

Photo: Army Medicine/Flickr

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