Did you know that 80% of dogs have some form of periodontal disease by the age of two? By understanding the causes, prevention, and treatment of dental disease in dogs, you can learn how to help your canine companion. Integrative veterinarian, Dr. Julie Buzby, shows you how.
I recently saw a Facebook ad with the headline…
75% of Pets Over Three Have Life-Threatening Dental Disease.
While the statement is false (I assume sensationalized for marketing drama), the premise is rooted in truth.
The truth about the seriousness of dental disease in dogs
The three points below more accurately present the truths about dental disease in dogs:
- By the age of two, 80% of dogs have some degree of periodontal disease. Sadly, it is “the norm.”
- Indirectly (due to pain, lack of ability to chew, or infection), I suppose dental disease in dogs can be—in some sense—considered life-threatening. However, the more accurate assessment of dental disease in dogs and cats is that it is painful and debilitating. And if you’ve ever experienced a tooth abscess or chronic mouth pain, you know that this may be a fate worse than death.
- Finally, why should dog dental care matter to me and to you? Dental disease is generally preventable and treatable.
Let’s help prevent dental disease in dogs by understanding what it is, how it can be prevented, and why your dog may enjoy life-long benefits from a professional dental cleaning.
What is periodontal disease in dogs?
First of all, let’s get a better picture of your dog’s teeth. The general anatomy of dog teeth is similar to human teeth. The teeth are anchored in place by a group of supporting structures—gum tissue, ligaments, and bone—called the “periodontium.”
You’ve probably heard the term gingivitis on a television commercial about human oral health. We think of it as gum disease. The “gingiva” is the gum tissue, and “gingivitis” means inflammation of that gum tissue. (The suffix “itis” in a word, generally indicates inflammation. Tendonitis, or inflammation of the tendon, is one common example for people.) Gingivitis represents the early stage of periodontitis. Here is the good news: gingivitis is reversible.
However, periodontitis, inflammation of that periodontium, is more involved. Like all of the “itis-es,” periodontitis can result in redness, pain, swelling, and loss of function. A bacterial infection, adhering to the teeth in plaque, compounds the problem.
Because the periodontium’s function is to hold the teeth in position, periodontitis can lead to tooth root exposure, tooth loss, and bone loss. This is in addition to changes in the gum recession.
Other symptoms of periodontitis in dogs may include:
- Bad breath (a result of the bacteria in the mouth)
- Pawing at the face (often an indicator of pain)
- Reluctance to open the mouth/resistance to being touched around the face (more indicators of pain)
- Changes in the way the dog eats/chews food (i.e. chewing predominantly on one side; dropping food from the mouth, etc.)
- Decreased appetite/weight loss
- Sneezing/asymmetrical nasal discharge
- Swelling around the mouth/face/eyes
- Drainage from the mouth (saliva, blood, pus)
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
Preventing dental disease in dogs, namely yours!
Unfortunately, the big player that determines your dog’s dental future is one that you have no control over—genetics.
Toy and small breed dogs are highly susceptible to dental disease, and large breed dogs as affected to a lesser degree. Your dog’s DNA not only dictates eye color and fur type, but it also dictates the health of your dog’s teeth starting from puppyhood.
However, we all know there is wisdom in focusing on what we can change and not what we can’t. Therefore, let’s focus on three critical things you can do to keep your dog’s mouth healthy:
- Schedule well care vet visits that include professional oral exams
- Plan and budget for dental cleanings
- Create a daily at-home dental care routine for your dog. To learn how to brush your dog’s teeth at home, please read my article, Should I Brush My Dog’s Teeth: 7 Tips & How-To Video.
- BONUS: Select safe chew toys for your dog. For my veterinarian-recommended tips, read Safe Chew Toys for Dogs: Chews Wisely and Are Antlers Good for Dogs? Please Choose No!
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of your role in this equation. As your dog’s biggest advocate, you can help your dog by taking steps today to prevent dental disease.
Professional oral exams: What you can expect
When you take your dog for a vet appointment, you can expect your veterinarian to examine your dog’s teeth. During your dog’s physical exam (the foundation for wellness care), your veterinarian will inspect your dog’s mouth.
As a veterinarian, my goal during this part of the exam is to inspect the patient’s teeth, lips, and gums first. Then I gently open the mouth to look at the tongue, roof of the mouth, and the back of the throat. (Some dogs are more compliant than others.)
All of this can be done in a matter of seconds, which is good because my patients do not just cooperatively open wide and say, “Ah!”
PRO TIP: Training your dog to cooperate for having his mouth opened is a valuable asset during veterinary exams, and also when administering medications and performing home dental care.
The degree of dental disease that dogs can present varies widely. In fact, there are stages of periodontal disease, each with a different prognosis (expected outcome). Gingivitis represents stage 1. Stage 2 through 4 are categorized based on the degree of bone loss or periodontium detachment.
Professional dental cleanings: scaling, polishing, and beyond
If your dog’s teeth and gums need professional care, your veterinarian will recommend a dental procedure under anesthesia and likely provide you an estimate of the cost. Professional dental care for pets can be very expensive, but priceless in terms of the benefit it provides your dog.
I think it’s key to note that dental care itself isn’t costly, but dental disease in dogs is.
Case in point: When I owned a veterinary hospital in rural Pennsylvania for eight years, I quickly learned that I was going to see a lot of dentistry cases. (Since periodontal disease is the number one health problem, it equates.) My team and I honed our skills through advanced dentistry training. In subsequent years, we performed many dental procedures.
It was not uncommon to extract 10 or 20+ teeth during a dental procedure.
However, the “after” stories were remarkable. We changed dogs’ lives, particularly the senior dogs, by resolving the pain and infection in their mouths. If your dog is suffering from dental disease, his or her “after” story could be the same.
What to expect if your dog needs a dental procedure
A dental procedure at your veterinarian’s office should include the following:
- General anesthesia
- Dental X-ray (if available)
- Scaling (cleaning) and polishing of the teeth
- Potential extractions (if necessary)
For a PDF of veterinary dental guidelines as specified by the American Animal Hospital Association, go to 2019 Dental Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats.
Why I do not recommend “anesthesia-free dental cleanings”
It’s important to point out that a dental procedure should not be confused with the term “gentle dental” also know as “anesthesia-free dental cleanings.” Gentle dental does not include general anesthesia, extractions, or X-rays. (It may not even include polishing.)
These controversial anesthesia-free dentals remove some of the plaque and tartar located on the visible part of the tooth (about 40% of the whole tooth). However, it cannot allow for thorough inspection and treatment of the area below the gumline, where the bacteria that cause periodontitis thrive. In other words, it does not adequately attack the root of the problem.
For the American Veterinary Dental College’s official position on anesthesia-free dentistry in pets, read Anesthesia-Free Dentistry: Know the Facts.
Finding the pearly white lining
If your canine companion is part of the 80% of dogs who have some form of periodontal disease by the age of two, take heart. There are solutions!
Please talk with your veterinarian about the causes, prevention, and treatment options for your beloved dog. And do not delay. Your dog is counting on you to get to the root of better dental health.
Ready for more ways to help your dog live the happiest, healthiest life possible?
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Has your dog had a professional dental procedure with your veterinarian?
If so, what was your experience?