How Healthy Is Your Dog’s Mouth?

Checking your dog’s yapper is key to recognizing these problems.

Persistently stinky breath is worth a trip to the vet — it may have a concerning underlying cause. By: tambako

When did you last check inside your dog’s mouth?

And we’re not just talking teeth here, but looking at the lips, gums and tongue to check for signs of disease, infection and cancer.

If it’s been a while, or it’s something you’ve never done, then keep reading to find out why it’s important.


Teeth Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Say your dog has bad breath. Do you put the smell down to dirty teeth and then dodge those doggy kisses? Well, don’t be so quick to dismiss halitosis (bad breath) because although common things are common (dirty teeth), other problems could cause that stinky breath.

He may have an oral ulcer, lip fold dermatitis, a heavy worm burden or even an undiagnosed tumor. But dental problems can also have a deeper impact. For example, a gum infection that gets into the bloodstream can cause blood poisoning and damage the heart or kidneys.

Long story short: Get into the habit of checking your dog’s mouth, and here’s what to be alert for:

1. Lips

Gently lift your dog’s lips to check the folds and wrinkles, including where the top lip falls over the bottom and the corners of the mouth.

Any skin folds should be clean and dry. If they are an angry red, feel greasy or sticky, smell bad and especially if there is a black discharge, then he’s got a lip fold infection. This is itchy and uncomfortable, making the dog rub his muzzle along the ground.

Your vet may prescribe antibiotics or a daily medicated wash to treat the issue.

2. Gums

Now move on to the dog’s gums. These should be a healthy pink color (unless the dog has pigmented gums) with no bleeding or angry border where they meet the teeth.

  • Color: Pale pink or white gums can be a sign of anemia. This is a serious problem, and the underlying cause needs to be found before the dog becomes very ill; a vet visit is essential.
  • Ulcers or Inflammation: Sore, bleeding areas can be a sign of infection (gingivitis) or damage due to toxins. These toxins can be produced by the body as a result of organ failure (such as kidney disease) or in household cleaners that the dog got ahold of.
  • Epulids: These are fleshy tissues that grows over the teeth and is most common in certain breeds, such as Boxers. They can also be a side effect of certain medications, such as Atopica (cyclosporine). These can physically impair the dog’s bite, and a small percentage can be an atypical presentation of a serious oral cancer — so get them checked.
  • Cancers: Lumps growing from the gum or areas of unusual dark pigment are a significant cause for concern and should be checked by a vet ASAP.
  • Gingivitis: That angry, bleeding red line where the gum meets the teeth is a common problem. If the teeth are dirty, this could well cause a bacterial infection in the gum known as gingivitis. This is significant because ultimately it undermines how the teeth are attached, so they fall out. Also possible are serious complications from septicemia, which can cause organ failure.
Check your dog’s mouth for any signs of disease once in a while. By: hand-nor-glove

3. Teeth

OK, there’s no avoiding talking about teeth:

  • Tartar: These are solid, yellowy-brown deposits covering the white crown. This contains bacteria and is a cause of loose teeth and infection.
  • Broken teeth: A source of pain (no different to us having a fractured tooth).
  • Wobbly teeth: Loose or wobbly teeth can interfere with eating.

4. Smell

A healthy mouth should not smell unpleasant. Give it the sniff test. If your reaction is “Yuck!” then be alert for the following causes:

  • Gum infections: That angry red rim again.
  • Lots of bacteria: Dirty teeth harbor unpleasant bacteria.
  • Worms: OK, in the gut (not the mouth), but a common cause of bad breath.
  • Trapped objects: A stick or bone lodged between two teeth tends to trap food and generate a bad smell.
  • Organ failure: Kidneys struggling to cope means a buildup of natural toxins in the bloodstream, which also causes bad breath.

Dog Mouth Trivia

Did you know 90% of school kids — but only 5% of dogs — suffer from dental decay? This is down to humans having a more acidic mouth that favors the growth of the bacteria responsible for cavities.

Also, the urban myth that a dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s, is just that — a myth. It’s just the type of bacteria populating the mouth are different. Unfortunately, this also means that dogs harbor Campylobacter rectus, which — you guessed it — they get from butt licking.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Oct. 11, 2018.


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