One of the most common dog owner complaints is bad breath. Although bad breath may seem fairly harmless, it is typically a symptom of more severe dental disease occurring in your dog's mouth. Cavities are uncommon but periodontal or gum disease in dogs is not. In fact, canine periodontal disease is one of the most common and serious dog health problems—affecting approximately 80% of dogs by the time they are 3 years old.
What is Periodontal Disease?
Periodontal disease is an infection caused by the bacteria found in dental plaque. It often starts with mild tooth discoloration but without regular cleaning, this plaque builds up and minerals in the saliva harden the plaque into hard tartar that is very firmly attached to the teeth. Although many owners can visibly see tartar above the gum line, this is not what causes periodontal disease. It is when tartar starts digging into and under the gums that bacteria become trapped and start a vicious cycle of infection and damage to the supporting tissues around the tooth.
Plaque is a soft film of bacteria and food debris that accumulates every day and sticks to the surface of a dog’s teeth. The mechanical forces of brushing easily remove plaque. If plaque is removed daily, a dog’s teeth and gums will stay healthy.
If plaque remains stuck on the surfaces of the teeth, minerals found in a dog’s saliva will harden this plaque into dental calculus—called tartar—which is firmly attached to the teeth.
When tartar starts to dig into and below the gum tissue, the gums become red, irritated and inflamed, resulting in a condition called gingivitis. Once tartar has dug into the gum line and created gingivitis, plaque bacteria are constantly being introduced below the gum line that results in varying degrees of gum infection.
Plaque bacteria below the gum line secrete toxic substances that cause further tissue damage. These bacteria, as well as the inflammation and tissue damage they cause, often stimulate a dog’s immune system. The immune system brings in white blood cells and other inflammatory chemicals to try to destroy the bacterial invaders. Unfortunately many of the supporting soft and bony tissues of the tooth are damaged in this process—a condition called periodontitis.
Tooth root abscess
Once periodontal disease is established and there is active gingivitis and periodontitis, bacteria can gain deep access to the roots of the teeth. The bacteria are capable of slowly destroying the root of the tooth and its attachment to the jaw that deprives the root and tooth of its vital blood supply. This results in death of the affected tissue and again the immune system calls a tremendous number of white blood cells to the area that results in an accumulation of white blood cells—called pus or an abscess. Unfortunately the immune system has a very difficult time ridding itself of deep bone infection—called osteomyelitis—and usually surgical intervention by a veterinarian is required. Tooth root abscesses most commonly affect the large premolar teeth and a dog will often present with a painful soft swelling directly under the eye.
Loss of teeth
In these advanced forms of periodontal disease where the deep attachments of the teeth are lost, teeth will fall out or require removal because they are loose and causing difficulty eating and/or pain.
Organ damage from canine periodontal disease
In addition to local damage in the mouth, periodontal disease may also result in widespread organ damage. Organ damage from canine periodontal disease occurs when bacteria from the infected tooth roots and gums gain access to the blood stream (a condition called bacteremia). Studies have shown that dogs with severe periodontal disease have more damage in their kidneys, heart muscle and liver than dogs without periodontal disease.
What are the signs your dog may have Periodontal Disease?
- Difficulty eating
- Pawing at the teeth or mouth
- Discharge from the nose
- Swelling under the eyes
- Bad breath
- Tooth discoloration or visible tartar
- Loose or missing teeth
- Red, swollen or bleeding gums
- Weight loss or loss of appetite
It's More than just bad breath
Risk Factors for Periodontal Disease
The most common risk factor for periodontal disease is a lack of adequate dog teeth cleaning by owners. Daily tooth brushing is as important as regular professional cleanings performed by veterinarians. In fact, unless a dog owner performs regular teeth cleaning at home, periodontal disease will progress regardless of the care provided by your veterinarian.
Puppies with retained deciduous teeth (also known as primary teeth, baby teeth, milk teeth, or puppy teeth) may be at increased risk for the development of periodontal disease. Dogs who chew excessively or chew on hard objects or synthetic chew toys may also be prone to tooth damage that may result in periodontal disease. Some chronic medical conditions such as Diabetes or Cushing’s Disease also increase a dog’s risk for periodontal disease. If your adult or senior dog is affected by a chronic condition ask your vet about the best way to maintain his dental health.
How can you prevent Periodontal Disease in your dog?
The key to management of gum disease in dogs is prevention. As long as the surfaces of the teeth are cleaned frequently and plaque is effectively removed daily, the gums will stay healthy. Prevention requires both at-home brushing as well as regular professional veterinary dental cleanings.
For best results, tooth brushing should start when your dog is a puppy. Young dogs will easily adjust to teeth cleaning at home. As dogs age and develop tooth and gum disease, there may be pain associated with brushing and they may be less willing to allow brushing. If your dog is completely unwilling to allow brushing, there are dental wipes that can help control plaque when rubbed twice daily against the teeth and gums.
In addition to daily tooth brushing, your dog will require dental cleanings by his veterinarian. Keep in mind that most dogs have evidence of at least some periodontal disease by the time they are 3 years of age. Therefore professional cleanings should begin at 1 year of age to prevent periodontal disease from occurring. Typically these cleanings will be performed once yearly, however, the frequency of these cleanings will depend on the success of the at-home dental care.
Talk to your VCA veterinarian today about the best way to maintain your dog’s dental health at home.