Can't bear to face another day of dog breath? Don't despair. Dental disease, one of the most common and potentially harmful health problems for dogs, is also easily avoided. What causes that special smell? Plaque buildup along the gum line gradually leads to gingivitis, or inflamed gums, and infection. If left unchecked, gingivitis will progress to periodontitis, or inflammation of the deeper tissues surrounding and supporting the teeth. In severe cases, infection in the mouth can spread through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, including the heart and kidneys.
The edges of healthy gums fit tightly around the teeth. When your pet develops gingivitis, tartar buildup around the gum line forces the gums away from the teeth. This creates pockets that trap food and bacteria, leading to gum inflammation, infection and bad breath.
You can reverse gingivitis with a professional cleaning, called a prophylaxis, and home dental care. But ignoring the problem can quickly lead to periodontitis.
As gum inflammation and infection worsen, they spread to the tooth root's bony attachments, causing the teeth to loosen. Your veterinarian can stop, but not reverse, the damage. Uncontrolled periodontitis ultimately results in tooth loss.
Risk Factors and Detection
Most pets show early signs of dental disease soon after reaching maturity, especially if they haven't been receiving preventive care. But many factors influence your pet's risk for dental disease.
Diet is one factor. Dry foods leave less residue on the teeth compared with soft foods. Chewing hard kibble helps keep your pet's teeth clean, but it isn't enough. Ask your veterinarian about a specially formulated diet for dogs that reduces tartar formation.
Breed also plays a role in dental disease. Many toy breeds retain their deciduous (baby) teeth after their adult teeth emerge. The extra teeth trap food and harbor bacteria. Many pug-nosed, or brachycephalic, dog breeds have crooked or overcrowded teeth, which contribute to dental disease. And some smaller breeds tend to form tartar faster than larger breeds.
One of the main factors determining the rate of tartar buildup is individual mouth chemistry. Some pets need yearly dental cleanings and others only need them every few years.
Certain metabolic diseases, such as hypothyroidism or kidney disease, can increase your pet's risk of dental disease. Diseases affecting the immune system, such as pemphigus and lupus in dogs, also may contribute to dental disease.
Signs of dental disease include bad breath, red and swollen gums, bleeding gums, lack of interest in food, difficulty eating, drooling, loose or broken teeth, heavy tartar deposits on teeth, swelling or a draining hole under the eye and pawing at the mouth.
Your veterinarian will examine your dog's mouth for swollen gums, tartar accumulation and loose teeth. If the doctor finds loose teeth, she will remove them.
Prevention and Treatment
Home dental care is important to your pet's overall health. Some pets resist brushing, but most eventually accept it, especially if you start a brushing routine when your pet is young.
Veterinarians recommend daily or at least twice-weekly brushings depending on your pet's condition. Use a special finger brush, which slides right over your index finger, or a small pet-sized toothbrush. And only use pet toothpaste. These formulations are safe for pets and come in great flavors to entice them. Don't ever use human toothbrushes or toothpaste on your pet. Human brushes are too big for your pet's mouth and the toothpaste can be toxic if ingested.
Dental chew toys and rawhide strips can help remove plaque, but don't rely on them for home care. And keep your pet from chewing hard items that could fracture his teeth.
Professional cleanings once a year will keep your dog's teeth in tiptop shape. And your pet's trip to the dentist will be a lot like yours. Some pets might receive a fluoride treatment or antiseptic rinse.
Your veterinarian will anesthetize your dog to clean his teeth. Depending on your pet's age and health, your veterinarian may perform blood tests before anesthetizing your pet. These tests evaluate whether or not there is an underlying medical problem such as kidney disease or infection and help ensure your pet will safely recover from anesthesia.
Once periodontitis sets in, your pet may need more aggressive medical treatment. If your veterinarian suspects a widespread infection, she may prescribe oral antibiotics before and after the teeth cleaning. Your pet's doctor may also prescribe pain medication if a tooth extraction was necessary.