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When you think of rotten dog teeth, you might picture cavities and dog tooth decay. And this is noirmal: cavities are a common dental concern for us humans. But dogs actually rarely suffer from cavities. Instead, you need to be on the lookout for periodontal disease, a widespread issue for many pets. Periodontal disease can have serious consequences for your dog’s overall health and quality of life. Learn how to spot signs of periodontal disease and what you can do to keep your dog’s teeth in tip-top shape.

What Is Periodontal Disease in Dogs?

Periodontal disease is the inflammation and infection of the tissues that surround your dog’s teeth. Those tissues, known as the periodontium, include the gums and the upper and lower parts of the jaw bones that contain the tooth sockets. The earliest stage of the disease is gingivitis, which is when the gums (also known as the gingiva) are affected. From there, it progresses deeper into the tissues until it impacts the bone. When the disease is advanced enough, the tooth will completely lose its attachment from its socket leading to the tooth becoming loose or falling out.

Periodontal disease is incredibly common in dogs. Up to 90 percent of dogs over the age of two have some level of the disease. In fact, according to Dr. Maria M. Soltero-Rivera, board-certified veterinary dentist and Assistant Professor of Dentistry and Oral Surgery at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, periodontal disease is extremely prevalent in dogs. “It is the most common disease we see,” Dr. Soltero-Rivera says.

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What Causes Periodontal Disease in Dogs?

The cause of periodontal disease in dogs is plaque – a layer of slime on the surface of the teeth, both above and below the gum line, produced by the bacteria that live in the mouth. While plaque is the main culprit, you can’t see it. The brown buildup you see on some dogs’ teeth is actually tartar, which forms when calcium salts in saliva are deposited on top of plaque. Besides being unsightly, tartar’s rough texture encourages further plaque buildup. And when the dog’s natural inflammatory response reacts to the plaque, problems begin.

In essence, this is the same way plaque, tartar, and periodontal disease work in humans, though the specific bacteria in each species may vary. There are also several factors that can modify or influence periodontal disease in dogs. For example, the prevalence increases with age. Dr. Soltero-Rivera adds, “Small breeds are typically more commonly affected, and Dachshunds, Miniature Schnauzers, and Yorkshire Terriers are some of those breeds known to have this condition.”

What Does Periodontal Disease Look Like in Dogs?

Unfortunately, by the time you notice periodontal disease in your dog, the condition may be at an advanced stage. There are few early indicators that you can see just by looking in your dog’s mouth. That’s why prevention and veterinary checkups are so essential. However, there are some physical clues to look for, as well as behaviors that signal oral discomfort. The following signs indicate your dog is suffering from periodontal disease:

  • Redness and/or bleeding of the gums
  • Exposed roots of the teeth
  • Loose teeth
  • Missing teeth
  • Decreased appetite or weight loss
  • Lack of interest or unwillingness to chew hard food or play with hard toys
  • Halitosis (bad breath)
  • Preference for chewing on one side of the mouth
  • Excessive drooling
  • Head shyness or being unwilling to let you look in their mouth
Irish Setter panting on a hot summer day, water and drool dripping down.
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Why Is Periodontal Disease in Dogs a Problem?

Periodontal disease can lead to loss of teeth and therefore issues with chewing and eating which can impact nutrition. It’s also quite painful for dogs. On top of that, there is the possibility of damage to other parts of the body, particularly the heart, liver, and kidneys. Research has shown that periodontal disease can have a significant adverse effect on a dog’s health due to these systemic or whole-body consequences, including a possible increase in disease and death.

These additional problems stem from bacteremia which occurs when the bacteria surrounding the roots of the teeth enter the blood stream. Dr. Soltero-Rivera says that by extrapolating from human medicine, “The thought is that bacteremia occurs even when we chew, and a healthy individual should be able to cope with this. However, in patients with certain systemic diseases, there is concern of direct effects from these bacteria but also the systemic inflammation that can occur in these patients.”

Australian Cattle Dog having its eyes checked by the vet.
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How To Treat Periodontal Disease in Dogs

Severe periodontal disease often requires the extraction of the dog’s teeth. For moderate levels of the disease, a dentist can consider advanced periodontal treatments to reduce the depth of the pockets where the teeth reside or to regain attachment of the teeth. For example, they can clean out the inside layer of a periodontal pocket to remove irritated and inflamed tissue. For early signs of the disease, routine dental treatments are the answer. That means scaling and polishing of your dog’s teeth, both above and below the gum line. All of these procedures should be done by a veterinarian while your dog is under anesthesia.

Most dogs need an annual veterinary checkup to assess the need for a professional dental cleaning, but small dogs and certain breeds who are at a higher risk of periodontal disease benefit from twice yearly checkups. Although there is always an inherent risk to anesthesia, according to Dr. Soltero-Rivera, “Professional dental cleanings are important in delaying the progression of periodontal disease and in detecting other diseases early on before they become a nuisance to our patients…We always want to weigh risk versus benefit. The idea is to tilt the balance from treatment to prevention.”

How to Prevent Periodontal Disease in Dogs

Although some plaque comes off your dog’s teeth naturally through their tongue movements and chewing habits, that’s simply not enough to make a difference. You need to have an at-home dental health routine for your dog. Ideally, you should brush your dog’s teeth every day to every other day. Dr. Soltero-Rivera says anything less than that doesn’t make a difference. Use a dog toothpaste because human toothpaste is designed to be spit out whereas your dog will swallow the paste. And choose an appropriate toothbrush or finger brush to suit the size of your dog’s mouth.

If it’s not possible to brush your dog’s teeth, then Dr. Soltero-Rivera recommends choosing two to three products from the Veterinary Oral Health Council that work in different ways, such as water additives, dental chews, or tooth wipes, and varying them at home on a daily basis. If you couple tooth brushing or dog dental products with regular veterinary checkups and professional dental cleanings, your dog will not only have healthy teeth, but a healthier body and better overall quality of life.

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