Gum Disease in Dogs: Dental Care

Trent Webb

Your dog explores the world with its mouth. Taste, touch, tugging; all that tactile stuff. So toothache, gum disease and other dental discomforts are more than an inconvenience, they are in effect a disability. So keeping a close eye on your dog’s dental health is vitally important.

Gum disease in dogs

Without a proper dental health regime around 70% of dogs will show significant signs of oral disease before they reach their third birthday. Which means that oral gum disease in dogs has climbed to the top of the canine healthcare charts. The most common cause of all dental problems is the build-up of dog plaque and dog tartar.

Plaque is a gloopy film that builds up on teeth. If it is not removed it hardens to become tartar. When the tartar builds up around the base of the teeth, it irritates the dog’s gums. The resulting inflammation causes gingivitis in dogs and is known by dental and veterinary folk as periodontal disease.

What does tartar actually do?

If tartar is allowed to remain on the teeth, it can affect your dog in three different ways:

Loosens teeth

The tartar build-up will begin to push the gums away from the tooth, so exposing the roots. As the gums grip less firmly and the roots come under attack, the teeth begin to loosen in their sockets. Loose teeth present small pockets of space that are an ideal entry point and breeding ground for infections. Loose teeth are always painful and will eventually either fall out or need extraction.

Oral infection

Infection can accumulate in the mouth resulting in conditions like gingivitis in dogs (inflammation of the gums), tonsillitis and pharyngitis (the generic ‘sore throat’). Vets can treat these conditions with antibiotics and supress any particular infection, but unless the dog’s tartar is removed, another infection will quickly follow.

Further complications

In possibly the worst case scenario an infection in the mouth gets into the blood stream and is carried to other parts of the body. Some kidney and heart diseases can be caused by this kind of infection.

So canine dental health is far more important matter than some grotty looking teeth and particularly bad doggy breath.

How can I keep my dog’s teeth clean?

With a bit of planning, a dash of research and sprinkling of discipline you can help your dog keep their teeth and gums healthy throughout their lives.

Feed them well

Sounds simple, but just as with humans, a bad diet can cause dental distress. Feeding dry food rather than wet will, through its (mild) abrasive action on the teeth as it is crunched, help to remove the bacterial dog plaque before it hardens to become tartar.

Dry food also offers more chewing exercise and gum stimulation if chewed, although it offers no benefits if they are a food-gulper. For dental, as well as a host of other reasons, avoid giving your dog sweets and table scraps. Vets also often recommend dry foods specially designed to combat plaque formation and tartar build-up. These can really help dogs that are disposed to dental problems for breed or genetic reasons.

Chewies and dental treats

This covers everything from hard meat-protein biscuits, through rawhide chews for dogs, to specifically designed dental chews. These help remove plaque and provide stimulation for the gums. Dogs are meant to chew, it is what they love to do, so use it to your advantage!  Dental chew treats offer the additional benefits of design (often featuring awkward tooth scraping shapes) and many specific dental enzymes. Together these work to turn playful chewing into plaque and tartar removal.

Dental supplements

There are a range of products that can help fight plaque and manage the amount of oral bacteria. Water supplements like PlaqueOff and Aquadent can be added to their drinking water to provide constant support. While there are gels and pastes such as Dentisept and Logic Gel contain which are applied directly into the mouth, but don’t require brushing. They are most effective when used alongside regular tooth brushing or after a dental procedure, but will have an effect if used in isolation.

Regular home brushing

Yes, we all know that dogs need to have their teeth brushed in order to maintain the best dental health. And yes we all intended to get our new pups used to this when they were young. But most of us never got around to it. If you have puppy aged six and eight weeks of age start a daily (or at last weekly) tooth cleaning regime now!

If you and your dog missed that boat, it is not too late to start, but like learning French it just gets a little tougher the older you get. Introduce the concept of cleaning gradually, never over-fussing and at all times trying to make the experience a positive one for your dog. Reassure, praise and encourage them throughout the process and reward them with a very special treat when it’s finished. A dental chew maybe?

Tess enjoys having her teeth cleaned! This good habit learned as a puppy will pay dividends in better dental health as an adult
John Campbell, Head Vet of Pet Drugs Online

Annual dental checkups

Taking all the steps above will give your dog the best chance of keeping their mouth and teeth healthy. But it helps if you’re working to maintain clean mouth, rather than trying to remove a decade’s worth of tartar with a finger brush. This is where your vet comes into play. They can give your dog a thorough dental examination, look for any underlying problems and gauge the level of tartar build-up. If the amount of tartar is a concern they may recommend a full clean and polish. During this procedure they will remove tartar both above and below the gum line. Now it’s important to note that this requires anaesthesia, so it is not an insignificant procedure. Use the financial cost and the anxiety felt while they’re under, as a spur to make sure you then keep up a good cleaning regime. So neither of you have to go through it again!

Taking all these above will give your dog the best chance of keeping their mouth and teeth healthy. But it helps if you’re working to maintain clean mouth, rather than trying to remove a decade’s worth of tartar with a finger brush!

Dog dental basics

This post is an opinion and should only be used as a guide. You should discuss any change to your pet’s care or lifestyle thoroughly with your vet before starting any program or treatment.

If in doubt contact your veterinary practice

And always keep your vet's phone number handy - just in case!