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Dental Disease in Dogs

Dog with dental disease
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Severity: i Medium - High
Life stage: Adult, Senior

When someone says you have dog breath what they mean is that your breath smells bad. But, bad breath isn’t normal in dogs just like it isn’t normal in people. Bad breath is a sign that there is excess bacteria and inflammation in the mouth. 

Proper dental care can help keep a dog’s teeth and gums healthy. Unfortunately, dental disease in dogs is very common. Let’s explore the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for dental problems in dogs. 

What Is Dental Disease in Dogs?

Dental disease refers to any abnormalities that occur in your dog’s mouth. These include diseases of the teeth, gums, tongue, bones, and other structures of the mouth. While some types of dental disease are due to bacterial infections, trauma may also cause dental disease due to tooth fractures and even jaw fractures.

The most common type of dental disease is periodontal disease. Periodontal disease in dogs refers to infection, inflammation, and breakdown of the structures that support teeth and hold them in place. Humans develop the same kind of dental disease if they don’t brush their teeth and see a dentist regularly. 

Interestingly dogs very rarely develop cavities. This is because the types of bacteria that cause cavities are not common in dogs. 

Small breed dogs and brachycephalic breeds are more likely to develop dental disease than others. Yorkshire Terriers and Dachshunds are some of the breeds that commonly develop severe dental disease. However, all dogs are susceptible. 

As dogs age they accumulate bacteria on their teeth that form plaque. Therefore older dogs are more likely to show signs of dental disease. Young to middle aged dogs start to show signs of dental disease that progresses if not treated.

Causes of Dental Disease in Dogs

Just like in humans, dental disease in dogs is caused by poor dental hygiene. Dental hygiene means both brushing teeth daily and regularly seeing a veterinarian for oral examinations and cleanings. 

Dogs accumulate bacteria in their mouth which adheres to teeth as dental calculus. This leads to inflammation of the gums and breakdown of the structures that hold the teeth in place known as periodontal ligaments. Due to the shape and size of their mouths, small breed dogs are at increased risk of developing periodontal disease.

Some breeds have a genetic risk for gingivitis, periodontal disease, and other dental diseases. Boxers, for example, develop excessive gum tissue known as gingival hyperplasia. West Highland White Terriers and some other terrier breeds are at risk for craniomandibular osteopathy or overgrowth of the jaw bone.

Just like it is important to exercise the muscles of the body, it is important to use the teeth (chew), in order to maintain good dental health. For that reason many veterinarians recommend dry kibble dog food. However if you have ever watched a dog eat you know that if they can swallow food whole they will. The size, shape, and texture of food is important for dental health. Similarly, not having appropriate toys to chew on can impact dental health.

Dog Dental Disease Symptoms

Dog showing teeth and mouth

There are many possible symptoms of dental disease in dogs, including:

  • Bad breath
  • Bleeding
  • Red or swollen gums
  • Thick gray-brown calculus
  • Swelling on face
  • Discharge from one eye
  • Decreased appetite
  • Shyness around their head
  • Weight loss
  • Change in tooth color
  • Missing teeth
  • Rubbing or scratching their face

Dental disease can also cause disease in other parts of the body including kidney disease, heart disease, and liver disease

Types of Dental Disease in Dogs

There are several types of dental disease in dogs that pet parents should be aware of. These include:

Periodontal disease: Periodontal disease refers to infection, inflammation, and breakdown of the structures that support teeth and hold them in place. This leads to pain and tooth loss.

Trauma: Dogs may damage their teeth by chewing on very hard objects or playing vigorously with toys. They may also suffer from dental trauma if they are in a dog fight or hit by a car.

Tooth root infections: Bacteria that finds its way under the gums may form a pocket of infection around the tooth root. As this pocket expands it becomes a very painful abscess.

Gingivitis: Inflammation of the gums is known as gingivitis. When severe, it may be called stomatitis or ulcerative stomatitis. Boxers are known to develop gingival hyperplasia which is a benign overgrowth of the gums.

Growths: Many types of abnormal tissue can grow in the mouth. These include both benign tissues and cancers. Papilloma warts are small viral growths that resolve on their own. Melanoma is one of the more common types of oral cancer and is a very aggressive, severe disease. 

Dog Dental Disease Stages

veterinarian examining dog's teeth

There are four stages of periodontal disease. The stages refer only to periodontal disease. Other dental diseases, such as those caused by trauma, are not progressive so are not staged.

Stage 1: At this stage there is minimal tartar buildup. The gums may be slightly swollen and will likely bleed if brushed or if the dog chews on a rough toy. Dental disease in dogs at this stage is easily reversed with routine cleaning by a veterinarian or daily brushing at home. 

Stage 2: By stage two there may not be obvious visual signs of worsening periodontal disease but under the gum line the structures around the teeth are starting to become damaged by bacteria and inflammation. Stage 2 is diagnosed during an anesthetized exam that your veterinarian performs as part of your dog’s teeth cleaning. There may be some loss of the bone that holds teeth in place (alveolar bone). Addressing dental disease at this stage can reverse damage and save your dog’s teeth. 

Stage 3: Once periodontal disease reaches Stage 3 there is permanent bone loss leading to loose, painful teeth. Most often, your veterinarian will recommend extraction of teeth with this stage because of this pain. However, it is possible to save these teeth with advanced dental procedures. Typically these procedures are performed by a veterinary dental specialist. 

Stage 4: By Stage 4 of periodontal disease in dogs the teeth cannot be saved. It is in these dogs’ best interest to have most teeth extracted to address their pain and reduce the risk of future infection. Teeth may fall out on their own at this stage, putting the dog at risk for severe dental infection.

Other types of dental disease are graded for severity on different characteristics. For example, tooth fractures are simple if they do not reach the gum line while fractures are termed “complicated” if they reach below the gum line because of increased risk of infection. 

Diagnosing Dog Dental Disease 

Many types of dental disease in dogs can be diagnosed by your veterinarian’s physical exam. This includes visually looking in the mouth as well as feeling around the mouth, nose, and eyes. Your veterinarian will also feel the lymph nodes at the top of the neck which can become swollen with dental disease.

Dental disease may be hidden from view and require dental x-rays to look at the health of the tooth roots, jaw bone, and associated structures. Occasionally a CT scan (3-dimensional X-ray) is required to determine the full size, shape, and extent of dental diseases. CT scans can be useful in identifying cancers and abnormal bone growth. 

Dog Dental Disease Treatment

dog teeth cleaning procedure

Dental disease is treated by cleaning all of the teeth and surgically extracting any diseased teeth. Extractions can be performed by your regular veterinarian. 

More advanced dental treatments such as root canals, crowns, and bone grafts are available through specialist veterinary dentists (orofacial and maxillary surgeons) who undergo additional training to be able to perform these procedures.

Medication may be prescribed before or after dental extraction including antibiotics and pain medications. It is important to note that antibiotics for dental disease are just a band-aid – they will not treat the infection, just reduce its severity until extraction can be performed.

Cost to Treat Dental Disease in Dogs

The cost to treat dental disease in dogs depends on the type and severity of disease. A routine cleaning might cost between $400 and $600. Add dental X-rays to that for another $100-$300. Depending on which tooth or teeth need to be extracted they can be less than $50 for an incisor (front tooth) to $250 or more for a canine (fang) or large premolar. If multiple extractions are required, it’s easy to see how the cost goes up quickly.

Root canals, crowns, and other advanced procedures will likely cost you $1,000-$4,000 each, depending on what is required. 

Fortunately, preventing dental disease in dogs is much less expensive than treatment. 

How to Prevent Dental Disease in Dogs

There is no way to fully prevent all types of dental disease in dogs. However, the best thing you can do to reduce your dog’s risk for dental disease is to brush their teeth every day with a veterinarian-recommended dog toothpaste. Just like in humans, this goes a long way in reducing risk for dental infections, tooth decay, and gingivitis. 

The physical action of brushing each tooth at the gum line is the most important part. Even if your dog hates toothpaste and the toothbrush, rubbing your dog’s teeth and gums with a clean gauze every day can make a difference. Never use human toothpaste for dogs. It may contain xylitol which is an artificial sweetener that is toxic to dogs.

Similarly, regular check-ups with your veterinarian are important because it’s your vet’s job to notice dental disease before you do. Follow through when they recommend dental cleanings. Addressing a problem early is always less painful for your dog, easier for your veterinarian, and less expensive for you.

Some treats, chews, and foods can help reduce your dog’s risk for dental disease. These include prescription diets as well as some breed-specific diets. There are many treats on the shelves that label themselves as promoting dental health. However, unless the bag has the VOHC seal of approval these claims have not been backed up by testing. The same is true for supplements such as toothpaste, water additives, and others. If your favorite dental chew isn’t on the list, call the company and ask them to have their product evaluated by the third-party (unbiased) VOHC.

Dental Disease in Dogs Infographic

Dental disease in dogs infographic