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Gingivitis in Dogs

Veterinarian examining dog's mouth
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Severity: i Low - Medium
Life stage: Adult, Senior

Good oral health is as essential for dogs as it is for us. However, a set of pearly, white teeth isn’t the only mark of a healthy mouth. Dogs also need clean and healthy gums.

Unhealthy gums can set the stage for periodontal disease, a disease of teeth and teeth-supporting structures. Periodontal disease in dogs is common, affecting approximately 80 percent of dogs by age 3.

Gingivitis is the earliest stage of periodontal disease. It is reversible but can lead to serious dental and systemic health problems if left untreated.

What is Gingivitis?

Gingivitis is inflammation of the gums and occurs at the gingival sulcus, where the gum meets the visible part of the teeth. Unlike other oral health issues that affect multiple parts of the mouth, gingivitis affects only the gums.

Gingivitis can affect any dog, but small breeds are most susceptible to this condition because of their small mouths. In a small mouth, teeth become crowded and misaligned, making it easy for plaque to build up and cause gum problems.

Gingivitis in dogs tends to start early in life, especially in small breeds.

Causes of Gingivitis in Dogs

In many cases, gingivitis is caused by poor dental hygiene. Without good dental hygiene, plaque accumulates on the teeth. Plaque consists of food, bacteria, and saliva. When the plaque is not removed, plaque bacteria travel below the gumline and release enzymes that irritate the gums and cause inflammation.

Unremoved plaque hardens into tartar (also called calculus). Tartar attracts bacteria, spelling even more trouble for the gums.

Factors other than poor hygiene can contribute to gingivitis in dogs:

Untreated gingivitis can progress to periodontal disease, leading to loose and damaged teeth. Also, plaque bacteria can enter the bloodstream and negatively affect the liver, kidneys, and heart.

Symptoms of Gingivitis in Dogs

Dog with gingivitis

Early on, gingivitis is subtle and often goes unnoticed. Advanced gingivitis has noticeable symptoms including:

  • Red, swollen gums
  • Bad breath
  • Difficulty eating
  • Excessive drooling
  • Bleeding gums during teeth brushing
  • Excessive plaque and tartar
  • Receding gums

Diagnosing Gingivitis in Dogs

Because gingivitis is reversible, it is better to get a diagnosis and begin treatment sooner rather than later.

To diagnose gingivitis, your veterinarian will first perform a physical exam and ask you for a history of the problem. Do your best to describe your dog’s symptoms and when they started. Also, provide details about your dog’s diet, medical history, and at-home dental care routine.

During the physical exam, your veterinarian will take an initial look in your dog’s mouth. However, a thorough oral exam requires anesthesia.

Your veterinarian will also perform blood work and a urinalysis to evaluate your dog’s overall health and determine if there’s an underlying health problem contributing to the gingivitis. For example, blood work may indicate liver and kidney problems, suggesting advanced gingivitis. Glucose in the urine indicates diabetes, which increases the risk of developing gingivitis.

Dental X-rays will show if there’s damage to tooth-supporting structures, such as the jaws, indicating that the gingivitis has progressed to periodontal disease.

When your dog is anesthetized, your veterinarian will examine your dog’s entire mouth. They will look closely at the gums and look for any loose or damaged teeth.

Gingivitis Treatment for Dogs

Vet examining dog gums

Gingivitis is treatable with a professional dental cleaning, which will be performed while your dog is still anesthetized from the oral health exam. This cleaning involves several steps. 

First, all plaque and tartar above and below the gumline will be removed. Then, the teeth will be polished to make it harder for plaque bacteria to stick and accumulate. Your veterinarian may also apply fluoride to the teeth to prevent plaque accumulation.

Any loose or damaged teeth will be removed. Rest assured that your dog can adjust to eating with fewer teeth. Removing those teeth will help your dog’s mouth feel more comfortable, making it easier to chew and swallow food. Your veterinarian can advise you on helpful dietary changes after tooth removal.

After the cleaning, your veterinarian may want you to bring your dog in for follow-up appointments to continue monitoring gum health.

Cost to Treat Gingivitis in Dogs

The cost to treat gingivitis in dogs depends on the severity of gingivitis and the presence of underlying health conditions. A professional dental cleaning will cost at least several hundred dollars, and even more if damaged or loose teeth need to be removed. Tooth removal is painful, so pain medications would be an additional cost.

For a dog with an underlying health condition, such as diabetes, treating gingivitis will include the cost of a professional dental cleaning along with the ongoing costs of disease management.

How to Prevent Gingivitis in Dogs

Dog with toothbrush

Good dental hygiene is essential to preventing gingivitis in dogs and includes regular at-home dental care and annual professional dental cleanings.

The best time to start a dental care routine is when dogs are puppies. Don’t worry, though, if your dog is older. What is most important is creating and maintaining a routine to keep your dog’s gums as healthy as possible.

The ideal at-home dental care routine is daily toothbrushing with a dog-specific toothbrush and toothpaste. However, not all dogs tolerate their teeth being brushed.

If your dog does not tolerate teeth brushing, alternative dental care products are available that promote good dental health. Visit the Veterinary Oral Health Council website to select high-quality dental health products that have been tested and approved to slow the accumulation of plaque and tartar. These approved products will have a VOHC seal on their label.

Alternative dental health products include dental chew treats, water additives, and oral sprays.

Bringing it Together

Gingivitis is a preventable and reversible dental problem in dogs. Do your best to stay on top of your dog’s oral health. If you notice signs of gingivitis, seek treatment early to prevent more serious health problems.