It may be surprising to hear that dental disease is the most common ailment to affect our pets, with 80% of dogs and cats over the age of 3 suffering from this to some degree. It is often something we as owners do not view as important – how many times have you heard the phrase “normal doggy breath”? But in actual fact, there is more to gum disease than simply smelly breath. It can be behind a multitude of problems, some of which can be very serious.
Ever wondered why puppies have a penchant for chewing, especially things like shoes and hands?
It’s because they are teething! Just like humans, dogs also have a first set of baby teeth. These milk teeth are smaller and sharp in comparison to adult teeth. From 12 weeks to 6 months the milk teeth are lost with the adult teeth constantly erupting to replace them. To give their gums relief, puppies gnaw, just like human babies! It is an essential behaviour, with pups needing suitable aids to encourage this natural gnawing action. Special teething toys can be bought for this purpose and pups should be encouraged to use these, instead of hands or shoes, to relieve their tender gums.
If by the age of 6 months some baby teeth remain (usually canines), then you should speak to your vet. Your pet may need these teeth to be removed as, if left, they can lead to dental problems in later life.
Plaque builds up every day on the surface of teeth. If left to accumulate it can form a yellow discolouration. This plaque acts as a scaffold on which hard, brown tartar can then form. It is a self-perpetuating cycle, with the tartar now acting as a great place for plaque to again accumulate.
After time, the plaque and tartar will start to build up underneath the gum line too, acting to separate the gums from the teeth. This creates pockets in the gums which are brilliant places for bacteria to multiply. This gum separation, along with build-up of infection within the pockets, leads to inflammation and pain – gingivitis.
As dogs have a classically higher pain threshold and tend to think with their stomachs, gingivitis often will not put them off their food in the early stages. However, this is actually a very painful condition; just think how much we complain when we have a simple tooth ache! It should therefore not be ignored.
Eventually if left, dental disease will lead to gum recession and in the worst cases, tooth loss. At this stage disruption in diet is often seen, with the dog refusing to eat hard foods, choosing only to eat soft morsels. To manage to put a dog off its food is a strong sign of how severely painful dental disease can become in the later stages.
Dental disease can also have serious consequences elsewhere in the body. To a veterinarian – an unclean mouth means an unhealthy animal.
As bacteria build up in the gum pockets they start to gradually release toxins. These toxins, as well as the bacteria themselves, can enter directly into the animal’s blood stream through the inflamed gums. Once in the blood, they have an easy route straight to the heart where they can cause very serious complications such as infected valves, septic emboli and severe heart disease. Side effects can also been seen in the kidneys, intestines and joints as well.
Good news however, gum disease is completely preventable!
Symptoms of Gum Disease in Dogs
The symptoms of dental disease can be varied and sometimes quite subtle. The main ones to look out for are:
- Bad breath
- Increased drooling
- Chattering of mouth when drinking or eating
- Dropping of food from the mouth, or a reluctance to eat hard food
- Plaque discolouration of teeth (Yellow)
- Tartar build up on teeth (Hard brown material)
- Redness or bleeding of the gums
- White debris sitting around the gum line
- Exposed tooth roots. An obvious bulge at the bottom of a tooth should not be visible. The white surface should have an almost uniform colour with no change towards cream at the gum line. There should also be no holes or deep ridges at the bottom of a tooth.
If any of these signs are seen, you should discuss them with your vet to see if action is needed.
Prevention & Treatment of Gum Disease in Dogs
It is never too early to start a good dental care regime. In young pups it is important to encourage them to get used to having their teeth checked and their mouths touched. You can do this by gently lifting their gums all around the mouth and running your fingers along the gum lines as much as possible, getting them used to this action. This will make for an adult dog who is very tolerant of dental care.
Once adult molar teeth have erupted, you can progress from gentle rubbing of the gums to using a “finger brush” once or twice daily. This is a thimble made of rubber with soft bristles which acts as a gentle tooth brush. Start doing this around the large molar teeth first before eventually also brushing around the front incisors where the gums are a little more sensitive. A small amount of doggy toothpaste can also be used from this stage. Most are meat flavoured and what’s more, most dogs love it! If dental care is encouraged from a young age, many pooches actually see tooth brushing as a tasty treat. It is important to always use doggy toothpaste and not human versions as, unlike us, dogs will not spit out the excess which can lead to upset stomachs.
As a dog approaches adulthood, you can progress to using a proper toothbrush with your doggy toothpaste. This has an excellent mechanical cleaning action alongside the benefits of the toothpaste, giving the best results.
Just because a dog is already an adult doesn’t mean a brushing regime can’t be started as well. It may just take perseverance if they are not used to their mouth being examined or touched. It is best to start with a finger brush and get your dog used to accepting this before progressing to a toothbrush. Use a tasty toothpaste to give enjoyment to the new dental care regime and lavish lots of attention when they are allowing you to clean their teeth. Most importantly, have patience – you can teach an old dog new tricks!
The daily build-up of plaque on teeth can be removed well by daily brushing. This forms the gold standard of dental care that all veterinarians will recommend. Hard tartar is more cemented to the teeth and, once formed, can be difficult to remove without veterinary intervention. Therefore, prevention is always better than cure!
Daily dental chews and special teeth cleaning diets, along with oral gels and mouthwashes can also help in the fight against dental disease. These are not as good as tooth brushing, but can be used alongside or as an alternative in pets who really won’t tolerate the brush.
If dental disease is severe or tartar build up is significant, your vet may suggest a dental procedure be performed to help clean the teeth. This involves scaling to remove the build-up of plaque and tartar both above and below the gum line, polishing to make the surface of the teeth smooth and shiny so plaque can not easily stick, alongside removal of any diseased teeth. This is typically performed under a general anaesthetic to ensure your pet keeps their mouth nice and open during the procedure. It also protects them from injury from the dental instruments used. After any dental procedure, you now have a nice clean slate on which to build your doggy dental care regime.
And always remember, a healthy mouth is a healthier pet!