If your older dog is losing teeth, it’s often an indicator of periodontal disease. Dr. Julie Buzby, integrative veterinarian and founder of Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips®, shares the signs, symptoms, and treatment options for dental disease in older dogs. Learn how early intervention and preventative treatments can help your dog live a healthier, happier (and pain-free) life.
As a senior dog parent, how often do you think about your dog’s oral health? You may brush your dog’s teeth at home, and I’m sure you try make wise choices when it comes to safe chew toys for dogs. Those are two important components in decreasing the odds of dental disease in dogs. However, without regular dental exams, professional cleanings, and an awareness of the signs of dental disease, your senior pup could very well end up losing some of her teeth.
So what can you do today to prevent tooth loss in the future, and what options are available if your dear old dog has already lost a tooth or two?
These are great questions that I’ll get to in just a second. But first, let’s look at why older dogs lose their teeth to begin with and discuss a few of the early signs. Then I’ll share the connection between your dog’s oral health and her overall well-being, and finally, let’s talk treatment and prevention.
Why is my older dog losing teeth?
If you’ve noticed your senior dog losing teeth and you can’t chalk it up to a fall, slip, or other form of trauma, it’s quite possible your dog has some degree of periodontal disease (i.e. dental disease).
Periodontal disease is inflammation or infection of the tissues around the teeth. These include the gums (or gingiva), the periodontal ligament that anchors the tooth in place, and the alveolar bone that surrounds the tooth roots.
Periodontal disease is one of the most common health problems diagnosed by veterinarians. It is estimated that over 80% of adult dogs will develop some degree of periodontal disease by the time they are three years old.
This disease starts when plaque, a sticky substance made from saliva mixed with food particles, builds up on the teeth. Bacteria in the plaque can cause an inflamed gum line (i.e. gingivitis) and infect the alveolar bone surrounding the teeth.
Plaque can be removed from the teeth by consistent routine brushing, but if allowed to remain, over time it will harden into tartar (i.e. calculus). This tartar cannot be removed by brushing alone. It’s like cement on the teeth.
As tartar accumulates, inflammation increases and bone loss occurs. When alveolar bone loss exceeds 50%, teeth loosen and fall out on their own.
If your vet suspects periodontal disease, he or she will classify the disease into one of the following stages. Dental X-rays under general anesthesia will help your veterinarian determine the stage of periodontal disease.
What are the stages of periodontal disease?
|Stage 0||Tartar is present but no bone loss.|
|Stage 1||Tartar is present along with gingivitis; the alveolar bone is intact.|
|Stage 2||Tarter and mild to moderate gingivitis are present; 25% bone loss around the teeth.|
|Stage 3||Tartar and moderate to severe gingivitis are present; 25-50% bone loss.|
|Stage 4||Severe tartar and gingivitis are present; visible bone loss of > 50%).|
What are the signs of periodontal disease in older dogs?
Take inventory to determine if your dog is showing any of these periodontal disease signs. Report any red flags to your veterinarian.
- Bad breath.
- Pain when chewing.
- Bleeding gums.
- Dropping food or drooling when eating.
- Chewing only on one side of his mouth.
- Showing preference for soft foods or refusing to eat hard foods.
Signs of advanced stages of periodontal disease
If your dog is in the more advanced stages of periodontal disease, you may see the following:
- Pus around the teeth and gums.
- Extensive tartar in thick walls around the teeth.
- Substantial bone loss causing teeth to loosen or fall out.
- Swelling around the mouth or face because of tooth root abscesses (more common if your dog has a fractured tooth).
- Refusal to eat because of severe pain and oral sensitivity.
How does periodontal disease affect my dog’s health?
It may appear that your aging dog’s oral health is separate from the rest of her body, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, periodontal disease is one of the most common health problems diagnosed by veterinarians.
Here are three ways your dog’s periodontal disease (no matter the stage) may affect her overall health and well-being.
- Gradual weight loss: Because of the pain associated with periodontal disease, dogs often lose weight. If it hurts to eat, your dog will eat less and less.
- Lower quality of life: She may have less energy because her mouth may be a source of constant pain. This also means chronic inflammation, which is bad for mind and body. A painful dog may have no interest in using her mouth to play with toys.
- Increased risk of heart disease: If your dog’s gums bleed due to gingivitis, bacteria from the mouth can enter her bloodstream and migrate to the heart. There it attaches to the heart valves, causing inflammation (i.e. endocarditis). In its early stages, endocarditis causes lethargy and weight loss. As it progresses, it leads to signs of heart failure such as coughing, difficulty breathing, exercise intolerance, and sudden collapse.
How can I help my older dog who is losing teeth?
First, let me be abundantly clear that if you’re wondering: “At what age do older dogs start losing teeth?” The answer is NEVER, at least not in an ideal world. Do older dogs lose their teeth? Yes, they do. I see it all the time in my practice. But, it’s not something we expect to happen as a part of the aging process. It’s not normal at any adult age.
Take, for example, older people. Do you have an older parent or grandparent who is losing teeth? Maybe, but I’m guessing they are under the care of a dentist, endodontist, periodontist, oral surgeon, or some combination of these specialized doctors. We do not treat tooth loss as a “routine” part of aging for senior citizens. It happens, but it indicates something is wrong. The same holds true for old dogs.
Do old dogs lose their teeth? Yes
Should they? Hopefully not
What do you do if your older dog is losing teeth? Read on…
If your older dog is losing any of their 42 teeth, a trip to the veterinarian is in order. By simply examining your dog’s mouth while she is awake, your vet can make some recommendations about how how to proceed. He or she might suggest putting your dog under general anesthesia so dental X-rays can be taken to determine the periodontal disease stage and formulate a treatment plan.
The most common treatment is a full dental cleaning while your dog is under general anesthesia. Your vet uses a dental prophylaxis machine to clean the teeth. An ultrasonic scaler breaks up and removes plaque and tartar. After that, a polisher smooths the surface of the tooth making it harder for bacteria to adhere and form plaque in the future. Sometimes a special gel is inserted below the gum line to help prevent future plaque and tartar from accumulating. These gels often contain an antibiotic to treat minor infections.
For the safety and comfort of your dog, X-rays and dental prophylaxis should always be performed under general anesthesia. It’s extremely difficult, even in the best behaved canine patients, to get dental X-rays without sedation. Also, cleanings won’t be as effective on an alert patient since the teeth can’t be cleaned or scaled below the gum line.
The “root” of the problem in periodontal disease lies with the 60% of the tooth below the gum line. Thus, a dental procedure must be able to assess and treat the whole tooth, not just make the visible portion of the tooth look pearly white again.
What happens if diseased teeth are found?
In some cases, a board-certified veterinary dentist can save diseased or fractured teeth. Compared to a general practice veterinarian, he or she has a broader range of experience and procedures at their disposal such as a root canal, a vital pulpotomy, or crown restoration.
Can I prevent periodontal disease?
In many cases, yes! Periodontal disease can be prevented — and consistent, regular brushing is one huge step in the right direction.
It is best to brush your dog’s teeth every day since it removes food particles and bacteria before they turn into plaque. Keep in mind it only takes a few days for plaque and tartar to form, so daily brushing is a must!
Since many dogs are averse to brushing at first, gradually introduce her to the idea of brushing. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush and toothpaste designed for dogs since human toothpaste can be harmful if swallowed. For a video tutorial and step-by-step instructions, please check out my article: Should I Brush My Dog’s Teeth? 7 Toothbrushing Tips. To learn more about the dangers of human toothpaste for dogs, please read: Can You Use Human Toothpaste on Dogs? You’ll get the nitty-gritty on the three components in human toothpastes that are toxic to dogs.
You may also want to consider other doggie dental products. In addition to brushing, dental chews can help physically remove food particles, and some even have a special coating to prevent bacteria from sticking to your dog’s teeth. Water additives, oral hygiene rinses, and therapeutic veterinary diets are also beneficial for dogs who are prone to dental disease.
Effective products for canine dental care
For the most effective products, look for the distinctive white logo of the Veterinary Oral Health Council, or see their current list of accepted dental products for dogs. Any product with this seal of approval has gone through two clinical trials to demonstrate its efficacy, so you can feel confident it will delay plaque and tartar formation.
Preserve the smile you love
Periodontal disease at any stage is serious, and if left untreated, can lead to tooth loss, difficulty eating, weight loss, and even heart disease. However, the sooner you notice early warning signs, the more likely you are to preserve that happy smile you’ve come to love over the years. And of course, if your dog is already losing teeth, contact your veterinarian right away. With quick intervention, you can relieve your pup’s discomfort in no time.
If X-rays show that bone loss is present, guided tissue or bone regeneration may also be an option. However, these are highly technical procedures only specialists can perform. Referral to a specialist may not be possible in all cases. Having fractured or infected teeth extracted by your veterinarian can also greatly improve your dog’s dental health and quality of life.
What habits do you have for keeping your dog’s teeth and gums clean?
Share in the comments below.